Are China's senior citizens turning deviant, or is a cohort of criminals just getting old?
That's the question some Chinese Internet users were asking Wednesday after a video surfaced online apparently showing an elderly woman pretending to get hit by a bus in Shanxi province.
China's press has carried numerous reports in the past few years about passersby being hesitant to come to the aid of seniors who claim to be in distress because they fear that some elderly people will blame those who try to help for knocking them down or otherwise injuring them, and then try to extort some compensation.
Such reluctance to act as good Samaritans has prompted hand-wringing among social commentators about the fraying moral fabric of Chinese society in the 21st century. The phenomenon echoes the famed 1964 Kitty Genovese murder case in New York, during which neighbors were said to have heard the victim's screams but neglected to come to her aid. (As the 50th anniversary of that incident recently passed, however, numerous sources including a New Yorker magazine article have called into question the generally accepted notion of the Genovese events.)
The Chinese video making the rounds Wednesday seemed to catch one aging con-woman in the act.
The video, which looks to be taken by a pedestrian using a cellphone, begins with a woman on the ground near a busy street, struggling to get up. "Can you help me? I'm over 70 years old. Help me to get up!" she says. Numerous passersby refuse to intervene.
After several moments, the woman gets herself to her feet. She staggers a few feet, stepping directly in the path of an oncoming bus. The bus, however, manages to stop just short of the woman.
Instead of thanking the driver for his quick action, though, the woman suddenly drops to the ground and crawls under the chassis, positioning herself near the front wheels of the stopped bus. The driver alights from the bus to speak to the woman.
"Come out, come out," the driver says, tugging on her coat. Why are you under my bus? he asks. The woman replies that she is scared. "I wanted to die, I wanted to commit suicide," she says. The driver, incredulous, asks: "Why under my bus?"
Onlookers urge the driver to call police. The driver returns to the vehicle and instructs his passengers to exit the bus while he deals with the situation.
The woman's actions, some observers noted, are actually a longstanding Chinese phenomenon known as peng ci'er, which literally means to break or bump porcelain.
Peng ci'er rackets are said to date back at least 100 years, to the end of the Qing Dynasty, when impoverished members of the former nobility would walk in public carrying cheap pieces of porcelain and intentionally bump into others, then accuse the unsuspecting pedestrians of breaking some priceless piece of dishware.
Today, some peng ci'er gangs are known for deliberately crashing cars — often high-end vehicles like BMWs — and then demanding compensation.
"Looks like she's very skilled," said one person commenting on Wednesday's video online. "She must have practiced this."
But others said the woman's actions reflected more poorly on society than on her as an individual. "There are more and more old people, and more and more old people who are poor, and who don't have social security," said one commenter. Added another: "If old people had a good life, how can she behave like this?"
A person from Fujian province disagreed. "It's not old people turning bad," he said. "It's bad people growing old."