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Moral void in Chinese success story

Friday, October 21, 2011
SINGAPORE ,The Straits Times / Asia News Network


It used to be said of the most destitute and populous of African countries that life was cheap. Hunger, disease and sometimes tribal warfare performed nature's random acts of mercy, it was claimed. No one could get away with saying that of the new China -- over- populated in parts and poor in patches, yes, but look at the stunning change. Life gets better and is to be savored. But the case of a little girl, aged two, who was left to die on the road after being run over by two vehicles as passers- by hurried away, has exposed a dark side of the modernizing China: a lust for materialism without a balancing morality. This ought to trouble every quarter of society - ordinary folk, the intelligentsia, wealth chasers, the media, law enforcers. Above all, the leadership of the Chinese Community Party.

Has frenzied competition for a better life, not necessarily to acquire great riches, lobotomized the people of inherent values like common decency, compassion and feelings of fellowship? What were the passers-by thinking when they came upon the mortally wounded girl? The one bright spot in the episode is that ordinary Chinese are asking themselves this question after a graphic video of the incident was aired. But not at all encouraging is that such incidents of callousness and cruelty are rife, and will probably be repeated ad nauseum.

The habit of not coming to the aid of individuals in an emergency is being ascribed in online and media comment to a moral void created by rapid societal change. But thoughtful people doubt the rush for jobs, assets and family security explains the condition fully. Some say that the 1960s-1970s Cultural Revolution which overturned traditions of hierarchical respect and familial protection had ushered in social coarsening. The capitalist switch that came after worsened it. Suspicion and distrust were the hallmarks. Minding one's business was a reflex, an impulse for self- preservation. Before that era of madness, the failed Great Leap Forward which triggered a massive famine made competition for food a life and death contest. Selfish habits were forged in those twin traumas, it is said.

Another explanation: People are reluctant to help as they could be implicated in legal proceedings. Cases of good deeds gone wrong have instigated calls for a good Samaritan indemnity law, patterned on a California statute enacted after people were sued for “improperly” aiding accident victims. This goes to the heart of China's moral dilemma: Is not the urge to help people in distress unconditional? The Beijing leadership will have to respond if the uproar does not let up. Successive leaders have been good at prescribing ways for the people to be gloriously rich. Now, to be gloriously helpful. How might that be done?

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