Has China lost its humanity?

The death of Yue Yue has provoked a bout of anguished soul-searching. Has Beijing's obsession with growth created a people devoid of empathy? Clifford Coonan reports

A little girl left bleeding to death on the side of the street after being struck by two goods vehicles, while 18 people passed her by and did nothing to help her.

A woman, six months pregnant, who died during a forced abortion to meet the terms of the one child policy of population control. These two incidents this week have left many people in China wondering aloud if rampant economic growth has come at the cost of the country's humanity. Is China becoming more dehumanised as incomes increase?

On the social networks, the talk is collective responsibility for the scandals. "We are all passers-by," one recently posted message read. The question is how this message of civic responsibility will go down with a generation reared on the principle that "to get rich is glorious".

CCTV footage from a market street in the southern city of Foshan shows 18 pedestrians and cyclists ignoring two-year-old Wang Yue, nicknamed Yue Yue, as she lay bleeding to death on the pavement after being struck by two vans. Despite several furtive glances, nobody stopped to help. The 19th passer-by, a lowly migrant worker collecting rubbish, pulled her to the side of the street and alerted the toddler's mother.

Yue Yue succumbed to her terrible wounds yesterday, after a week in hospital in Guangzhou, and within hours there were more than 1.9 million posts on a Chinese version of the Twitter social network, Sina Weibo, many of them asking: where was the humanity in all of this? The response here has been profound – similar to the soul-searching in Britain that followed the kidnapping, torture and murder in 1993 of the toddler James Bulger by two young boys in Merseyside.

"We can't ask others to be clean if we don't take a bath ourselves. And it's ridiculous to ask others to be moral if we always do immoral things," wrote another Weibo user. The overriding suspicion here is that those who to do try to help, out of a sense of public-spiritedness, face the possibility of being accused of complicity in the initial incident. "The reason so many people did not help [Yue Yue] is not because they didn't want to, but because they didn't dare to. It's just like the way no one helps elderly people who fall down. The rubbish collector is poor, she has nothing but her conscience, while others are afraid to lose what they have to extortion," ran one comment on Weibo.

Those helping injured people on the street do risk being landed with the costs of the hospital treatment or, in some cases, accused of being the cause of the accident. In Jiangsu province this week, bus driver Peng Yu helped an elderly woman who had fallen from his bus. Despite his efforts, he was blamed for causing her fall and had to pay nearly 46,000 yuan (£4,600) in compensation.

Tan Fang, the founder of chinahaoren.com, a website that aims to encourage greater civic responsibility, said: "On the surface, this looks like the indifference of 18 people, but it reflects deeper social problems. With rapid economic development in the past 30 years, China has promoted materialism, but spiritual civilisation goes beyond this, especially moral education.

"As early as 1989, [former leader] Deng Xiaoping pointed out how we need to develop education and build a moral code. But people misunderstood him, and just built schools and facilities. The poor and weak in society long for fairness and warmth, kindness. On the other hand, some rich people in society became rich by improper or illegal means and became rich quickly, their values are twisted and they feel they don't need morality.

"Therefore some people with no beliefs and a twisted value system can do terrible, unimaginable things. The case of Yue Yue is a tragedy rarely seen in China's history, but it is no accident. Everyone in society needs to own up to responsibility, every local government official, and every individual. It is very important to let people see that good people do well and bad people are punished, and the way to show this is by cracking down on corruption and other injustices."

Wang Yang, a top Communist Party official from the booming province of Guangdong, China's economic engine and the province where Foshan is located, told a high-level provincial meeting the tragedy should be a "wake-up call" for society and that such incidents should not be allowed to occur again. "We should look into the ugliness in ourselves with a dagger of conscience and bite the soul-searching bullet,"the Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.

The Party recognises that there is a spiritual void emerging from its materialist approach – after all this is a Marxist-Leninist organisation with materialism at its theoretical core. The government has introduced a number of efforts to try to encourage greater social responsibility, usually by hijacking some principles from Confucianism. The focus has been on creating a "harmonious society". However, many are fundamentally unwilling to take advice from the government and there are those who believe the Party's obsession with economic growth is to blame in creating a human vacuum at the heart of society.

The week's events have also highlighted the tension between the idea of a society of individuals and the masses. As China becomes wealthier, people want to have a greater say in their individual destinies. But there is little room for individual self-determination in a society where all families, regardless of the circumstances, are forced to bow down to the one child policy. There has been a large outcry in China this week about a woman, already the mother of one child, who died in Shandong province during a forced abortion. She was six months pregnant, and her family posted gruesome photographs of her lying dead on a trolley in a treatment room.

Under the regulations for implementing state family planning laws, local officials can lose their annual bonuses and be ruled out for promotion if anyone breaches the policy, putting pressure on functionaries to follow the letter of the law. There is recognition in China of the need for population control, but it is the inhumane way the law is implemented that has angered people.

The outpouring of horror over the indifference shown to the lives of the pregnant woman – her only crime being her wish for a second child and a larger family – and for Yue Yue as she lay bleeding on the street, has been matched by recognition that being a Good Samaritan in China is not without complications. Online polls show that most believed people should be protected for doing good works, but baulked at plans to make "Good Samaritan" acts mandatory. "It's not right to confuse moral and legal issues anyway," wrote internet user Xiaomei. "I think few people would risk being a Good Samaritan unless their own rights were protected by the law in the first place."

China's household incomes are set to double in coming years as it replaces Japan as the world's second-wealthiest country,behind the United States, with total income expected to shoot to £25.4trillion by 2016, a Credit Suisse report shows.

What is clear is that the accumulation of fortune will be accompanied with a vastly expanding wealth gap in China where the Gini coefficient, a commonly used measure of inequality of wealth, has already widened massively. Others blame the events on rapid urbanisation, which takes people out of communities and into cities where they become anonymous.

The public outcry shows people are aware of the dehumanisation process. The passers-by and drivers who ignored Yue Yue have been sharply criticised, and there is a growing groundswell of support for "Good Samaritans".

Donations flooded in for Yue Yue's medical treatment, alas in vain. Maybe next time, passers-by will slow down to help a dying child.

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