Dustin Goujon: On Morality in China

Shortly after arriving in Beijing to complete my Project Pengyou internship, it became clear to me that China was experiencing a crisis of morality. The media and netizens alike were in uproar about the “cold-hearted” nature of citizens and the general absence of benevolent acts in society. This was perhaps most dramatically illustrated in the lonely albeit very public death of two year-old YueYue in Foshan.

While some speculated that basic moral values had dissipated as a result of a 2007 Nanjing court ruling against Good Samaritan Peng Yu, others asked the question: “How could Chinese society act as an example to other nations when its own house was in disorder?”

As a foreigner, this apparent lack of morality was something that I was able to relate to on a personal level. During the initial stages of my stay in Beijing, I was repeatedly lured by seemingly friendly citizens into scams involving tea houses and art galleries. I had also resigned myself to being thoroughly overcharged for products and services that were rarely if ever what was promised. Sadly, as a result, my attitude towards morality in China slowly began to sour.

However, luckily for me, I was given some new perspective on this issue from an unlikely source.

While traveling home one night on the crowded subway, I failed to notice that I had dropped my wallet onto the seat as I stood up to get off the train. Thoroughly unaware of the potentially catastrophic scenario I had set in motion, I was about to step off the train when my arm was firmly grabbed. Automatically assuming that I was about to be asked for money or sold something defective by an unscrupulous individual, I turned around.

It was at this point that I noticed my arm was being held by an elderly beggar woman. Although initially confused, a wave of relief and gratitude passed through me when she handed me my wallet with a smile and all of its contents still inside. The irony of this simple act was not lost on me.

This lovely lady’s clothes were torn and tattered, her teeth were missing and she looked like she had known a life harder than anyone ever should. She undoubtedly had nothing to her name other than the clothes on her back, and would have benefited the most by allowing me to naively get off the train. Yet, she was the first in a crowded subway of people to ensure that I got my wallet back. She may have possessed not much, but her morality and integrity were intact to be sure.

Although she adamantly refused initially, I ended up giving her the money that was in my wallet. Her simple and selfless act had saved me from a horrible disaster.

On the walk home, I reflected on the new perspective that I had been given. I realized that although the media would have you believe that morality in China is long gone, it tends to be subdued rather than absent. This is hardly surprising given the repercussions faced by Yu in the famous Nanjing case, and that Chinese society is generally one in which interference in the affairs of others is discouraged.

However, people should not be penalized for doing what is inherently human: coming to the assistance of others in need. While it may be too late for YueYue, I applaud the Good Samaritan laws that have been recently introduced into Southern China. Hopefully, such laws will be conducive to acts of morality, such as those displayed towards me by a lovely and morally conscious beggar.

The photo above shows Chen Xianmei, the poor garbage collector who finally came to the aid of Yue Yue after many others passed her by. Chen Xianmei’s humble actions have captured the attention of the media.

Photo courtesy of Chinasmack.