19 October 2011

Perverse (dis)incentives and theology in Guangdong hit-and-run

The news is already nearly a week old, but it is still extremely outrageous. A little toddler named Yueyue 月月 wanders down a narrow street of Foshan, Guangdong, alone, and is hit by an oncoming white van which showed no hint of slowing down, until it has already hit her; at which point it stops, goes into reverse and runs over her again before driving away. What is even worse is that eighteen people, one of whom in all likelihood saw the accident, passed by the poor little girl without lifting a finger, and a second van ran her over as she lay prone on the street. In the end, only an elderly scrap pedlar named Chen Xianmei 陳賢妹 bothered to move her out of harm’s way and inquire as to where the girl’s parents were. This story has been covered at Hidden Harmonies, Shanghai Scrap, chinaSMACK and Shanghaiist. The entire incident is intensely depressing.

I realise there is a very strong tendency to want to blame the society for this, particularly given the perverse disincentives currently in place because of the Peng Yu Case (彭宇案), in which a man who helped an elderly lady (who had suffered a fall after colliding with someone whilst waiting for a bus) was promptly sued by said person for having collided with her in the first place. The suit was (astoundingly) successful, and the ‘reasoning’ the judge used (insofar as I can understand it) was that, since he was the first one on the scene to help, he must have felt guilty about having injured her in the first place. On the one hand, I understand quite clearly that this case had a profound and negative impact on the society; seemingly reinforcing the idea that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. I’m very unwilling to chalk it all up to that, however, since this happened in a broadly public setting and (as has been argued very broadly elsewhere) the ‘bystander effect’ is a very universal phenomenon. The only reason one can possibly have for trusting myself not to pass a young girl by on the side of the road is when one has actually done so (I say this as much of myself as of anyone else).

One thing I would like to comment briefly on (another kind of perverse disincentive at work) is the way in which Ms Chen was treated both while she was attempting to rescue the injured girl and in the aftermath when she ended up a heroine, both lauded and reviled out of proportion. Lauded because she did what no one else would; and reviled at first because she was seen as a busybody who couldn’t mind her own business (if she had been a young up-and-coming businesswoman rather than a working-class elderly pedlar and recycler, would she have met the same reception?), and later because of envious people suspecting her of being a fame- and fortune-seeker rather than a woman who managed to do the right thing and save a little girl’s life. In our current economic and social climate, as I believe the reaction has shown, another Lei Feng 雷鋒 (a popular hero of the PRC era, who was famed for his selfless service to his community and country) is probably not going to be well-received. Somewhere along the line (Cultural Revolution, anyone?), China has become a country where people who do not keep their heads down will be punished.

I really don’t want to make it sound as if it is cultural – or if it is, it is a culture which is common between East and West. In American society as well as Chinese society there is a definite pressure to ‘fit in’, to keep one’s head down, to mind one’s own private business, to not get involved. I think one of my friends, Yu Dong (also from Guangdong), has it pretty much right. He cites Lu Xun – one of whose themes is the idea that modern China has become a society of jaded, anaesthetised spectators. Lu Xun is very evocative, and there’s a lot in his writings to admire. But at the same time, his attachment to the existentialism of Nietzsche proves his undoing: his need to get under the skin of his readers, to write out of the spectator’s shoes in a position of detachment to provoke the reader, he takes so seriously that he winds up in a self-made hell of madness, bitterness and disenchantment.

The tale of Yueyue and of Chen Xianmei proved just how right he was, and just how wrong. Lu Xun justly wielded his pen against the crowds who stood by whilst atrocities were committed before their eyes. He had enough of a sense of irony that he could step into the follies of the crowds, but he did not have enough of a sense of humour to forgive them. If one really wants to get around the ‘bystander effect’, one has to have a sense of humour about it; not only irony. But once we get into this discussion (which naturally attributes meaning wherever one notes irony or humour), the next logical step must be a religious one.

Sinostand’s attitude (and the one the CCP has) toward religion in the wake of this tragedy – as a means of retaining power over people, using Heaven and Hell as a Machiavellian carrot-and-stick to influence good behaviour – I find to be fundamentally facile and unhelpful. The studies cited by Sinostand take assume only a functionalist, consequentialist morality (a sad product of our soulless system of economics) in which personal utility is the only consideration; this only matters because, to a certain extent, the testers (and the broader capitalist society) say it matters. The true irony is that it is in the interests of the high-powered and moneyed controllers of capital and technocratic managerial class to see religion as a tool to keep the rabble in line. But if the Nanjing Judge side of the equation has any meaning at all in this instance, people who fear punishment, divine or otherwise, will not be the ones to move themselves to undertake good actions – Confucius was ultimately right that harsh punishments do not give people a sense of shame in order to distinguish right from wrong. Further (and more to the point theologically), Jesus never spoke of Hell to the poor, to the common people or to the ‘sinners’; he only spoke of Hell to those who were already ‘righteous’: the religious authorities and the wealthy. If Jesus truly embodied this theology, the Sanhedrin and Pilate would have seen him as a useful tool rather than a threat!

This really is pure and utter tragedy; I truly cannot blame people for reacting the way that they have. One ray of hope, though, is the outpouring of generosity which the Chinese people have shown to Yueyue’s family in the wake of the event. It appears that, when it comes to a sense of morality in the Chinese people, all is not (as somewhat feared) lost.

Thank you, Rob Klugerman and Yu Dong, for the links!

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