Who can you trust?

By now most readers will have seen the horrible images of a woman hit by a car and left dying in the street ignored by dozens of passersby in Zhumadian, Henan. Most readers will also be reminded of a similar, perhaps even more shocking since it involved a toddler, incident in 2013 in Foshan, Guangdong.

Both cases prompted much soul searching among Chinese people, many of them wondering how their society could have become so heartless and inhumane (無情). Most often offered in explanation, is the fear that helping strangers in need might result in problems for passersby themselves (找自己麻煩), citing instances where good Samaritans had been wrongly accused or forced to take responsibility for treatment.

This line of argument is a sad indictment of what happens when a society loses trust in the justice system and in each other.

I want to emphasise that this is not meant as a criticism of Chinese people or China itself. It is merely a reflection on what two horrible incidents say about the current situation in China. Certainly no one should interpret either incident as reflecting the inhumanity or wickedness of “the Chinese people”. And yes, terrible, wicked things happen all over the world every day.

But if the prevailing explanation for why a woman and toddler were left to die in the street unaided is a lack of trust, then that should prompt consideration of how Chinese society got to this point. This discussion is going on in Chinese cyberspace right now, and there is excellent scholarly work too (e.g. here and here). There is much debate about what effects trust levels in China (from the political system to culture to historical legacies). In sum, we can probably say that it is not mono-causal and therefore any “solution” will also need to be multifaceted.

The lack of trust is pervasive and manifest in a multitude of mundane and potentially grave experiences. Can you trust that crossing the road on your green light a car won’t run you over? Can you trust that the milk powder or soy sauce you buy isn’t poisonous? Can you trust that the risque joke you made on Weibo today won’t come back to haunt you tomorrow? Can you trust that the soil or air in your town isn’t slowly killing you? Can you trust that the people you do business with will honour the contract? And so on.

One could choose any number of alternative examples invoking any number of different issues and sectors. The point is that there is no single solution to a condition that manifests itself in myriad ways in billions of quotidian interactions, from the top of society to the bottom, and which sometimes results in a woman dying under the gaze of passersby.