For all of its economic might and diplomatic clout, it is lacking in the finer things of life
By Ho Ai Li
RETIREE Xiao Yusheng, 78, was on his way home after a shopping trip when he slipped and knocked his head against the floor at the lobby of his apartment block in Shenzhen two weeks ago.
A crowd gathered around him, but no one tried to help. By the time the ambulance arrived 20 minutes later, he was already dead.
The old man might have held out if someone had just lifted him up and turned him around, his family told the Southern Metropolis Daily.
In response, a security guard who was there told the paper that if he had touched Mr Xiao, he might get blamed for the old man's death.
It is hard to blame the security guard for thinking this way, for something like this did happen to a secondary school student from western Chongqing city last year.
The teenager offered his hand to an elderly woman who was lying on the street in pain, but she turned around and accused him of hurting her and took him to court instead.
China might pride itself as a li yi zhi bang, or land of manners and propriety, but it can be real hard to be kind in China.
In the Chongqing case, the teenager was proven innocent eventually, but a Nanjing man was not so lucky.
In 2006, a man named Peng Yu was fined about 45,000 yuan (S$9,000) by a court after he helped a woman in distress who was later found to have a hip fracture.
The woman accused Mr Peng of knocking her down and demanded compensation. A court found him guilty and reportedly offered this rationale: If he was not guilty, why did he help? Why didn't he wait for her relatives to take her to hospital?
Whether Mr Peng really knocked the woman down is moot, but the court's belief that an individual would not offer a hand out of pure altruism is a chilling commentary on China.
The result, in any case, is that these widely publicised cases have made many Chinese, traditionally more inclined to help people they know than strangers, even more entrenched in their habits.
As the late writer Bo Yang noted in his book The Ugly Chinaman, it is common for Americans to go up to strangers and ask: 'Can I be of service to you?'
In contrast, the Chinese tend not to volunteer help to strangers, and view those who do so as busybodies or people harbouring ulterior motives, he wrote.
Yet, it is not that the Chinese are less generous than others. Whenever people in need are highlighted in the Chinese media, many will offer aid.
Take for instance, Shandong couple Liu Wei and Wei Xiang, who could not afford surgery for their one-year-old daughter Yuhan, who was born prematurely and had an abnormally large head.
After their story was highlighted in the Beijing media this month, the working-class couple received at least 110,000 yuan from strangers for Yuhan's surgery.
Netizens have also volunteered to collect money and clothes for miners suffering from lung cancer or for poor children, among others.
In particular, the 2008 earthquake in south-western Sichuan province was a watershed for charity in the country, unleashing a tide of donations and volunteers which surprised even the Chinese themselves.
But the lack of transparency and accountability over how charity funds were used sparked worries about graft and further eroded public trust, which was already low to start with.
'Everybody is willing to do a good deed, but the problem is, does the money end up in the hands of those who really need it?' Chinese actor Jet Li asked after running into difficulties in registering his philanthropic One Foundation in China earlier this year.
Donations were transferred to the disaster areas via various hands, and there was always the chance some of the money would be siphoned off, he added.
Nor are there many incentives for people to donate to charity in China. Monetary gifts to non-governmental organisations are taxed heavily, and are tax-exempt only when given to the handful of state-sanctioned charities.
Businessman Ni Le, head of the Maoming Federation of Industry and Commerce in southern Guangdong province, found he had to pay 600,000 yuan in taxes when he donated a million yuan to help villagers in a disaster-hit area.
And for foreigners who want to offer a helping hand, restrictions abound.
Americans Casey Wilson and Courtney McColgan started non-profit microfinance group Wokai in 2007 to help provide loans to the poor in rural areas in Sichuan and Inner Mongolia. They have offers of donations from many Chinese, but cannot accept them as foreign groups are not allowed to raise funds in China.
Despite China's rapid rise and louder voice on the world stage, it has been found wanting when it comes to the little things in life, like encouraging and enabling acts of kindness.
The danger is that more Chinese will fall into the habit of not caring for others outside of their families, and look out only for themselves.
This does not bode well for the social harmony so valued by Beijing, especially as wealth disparities widen and social mobility declines in China.
Ultimately, for all of China's economic might and diplomatic clout, it is lacking in the finer things of life.
How a country's people treat the weak and needy in society and their willingness to help strangers are the things that show how big its heart is and how great a power it can be.