Chinese toddler’s death evokes outpouring of grief and guilt

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

They are calling it the death that awakened the conscience of China.

A 2-year-old girl crushed by two vans last week and then ignored by 18 passersby as she lay bleeding on the street died at 12:32 a.m. Friday of systematic organ failure at a hospital in the southern Guangdong province.

By midday, there were 2 million condolence messages flooding the Internet for the girl, whose name was Wang Yue, or Yueyue for short.


“Heaven’s roads have no cars. Go in peace, little Yueyue,” wrote one woman. “Your life woke up this ignorant society. Thanks to little Yueyue for letting us stop our fast-paced steps so we can wait for our soul,” wrote a man, Sun Laolin.

The accident happened Oct. 13 at a market in Foshan, a city in Guangdong province. Yueyue’s plight has riveted China since Sunday, when harrowing video from a closed-circuit camera at the market went up on the Internet, showing the little girl in red trousers and a dark T-shirt toddling into the path of a delivery van.

As she lay bleeding on the road, the video shows, people walked or drove by on scooters, in some cases pausing to look at the girl or swerving to avoid her, but not stopping to help or call police. She was hit by another van before a trash collector pulled her out of the road and called Yueyue’s mother, who had been hanging laundry at the time the girl wandered off.

Yueyue has since become a household name in China, as has her lone rescuer, trash collector Chen Xianmei, 57, an illiterate migrant from the countryside.

The case has become the Chinese equivalent of the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, whose neighbors overlooking a New York courtyard either heard or saw her being stabbed and didn’t call the police. Although subsequent studies show that the neighbors weren’t as passive as originally thought, Genovese’s death inspired books, songs and movies and is still used as a case study in psychology books to examine the phenomenon of bystanders who fail to help.

Guangdong provincial officials, along with Communist Party youth league members, lawyers and social workers, held three days of meetings this week in the provincial capital of Guangzhou to discuss the implications of Yueyue’s case.

“People are really shocked. Some were crying. We couldn’t imagine that moral values have declined so much,” said Zhu Yongping, a prominent Guangzhou lawyer who attended one of the meetings Friday.

He and other lawyers are trying to draft “Good Samaritan” legislation that would penalize people who fail to help in a situation of this type and indemnify them from lawsuits if their efforts are in vain.

In China, people helping have been blamed for causing accidents in several cases. The most famous was in Nanjing in 2006, when a motorist who stopped to help an elderly woman who had fallen was penalized for hitting her with his car; a judge ruled he wouldn’t have helped if he wasn’t guilty.

But people attending the meeting in Guangdong said the apathy was more of a moral problem than a legal one.

“We should look into the ugliness in ourselves with a dagger of conscience and bite the soul-searching bullet,” Wang Yang, a Guangdong official, was quoted telling the New China News Agency.

The publicity over Yueyue’s case may already be swaying attitudes. State media prominently published stories this week about how shopkeepers in another neighborhood of Foshan rushed to help a small boy hit by a car Wednesday. A poll published Friday in the Shanghai Daily newspaper found that the majority of respondents said they would help the child, while 40% said they would at least call police and an ambulance. Three percent said, “I would probably stay away from the trouble.”

Chinese journalists have since tracked down many of the 18 people who were shown on the videotape. Most denied seeing the girl, but one woman, who was shown walking by with her own young daughter, admitted that she left quickly because she and her daughter were scared.

“I wanted to lift her, but there was so much blood. I was scared,” the woman surnamed Lin told the Guangzhou daily, saying she felt “regretful, compassionate, painful at heart and guilty.”