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When we learn of a child's death, what should be our response? When a two-year-old girl's life is extinguished on the streets of a city in this country, and passers-by walk on unheeding, what is there in the palette of human thought or feeling that is not meaningless in the face of such tragedy?|
The outpouring of emotion that has gripped the nation in the last week has offered many possible directions we might take from these questions. However, many of the more sentimental responses have offered little to advise us on where we should go now. Commentators in the blogosphere have admitted to a deep sense of shame on behalf of the people who ignored Wang Yue's small form as she lay crushed by the roadside, and some have even expressed anger, too. Other, more professional, writers have gone in the opposite direction by trying mitigate the public's sense of outrage. One such article, written by Zheng Caixiong and entitled 'Rescues show caring nature of passers-by' (China Daily 2011.10.21), was printed on the day of Wang Yue's death from her injuries in hospital, and cannot but seem tactless. Some others yet, both honest and practical, have given voice to the fear known in varying extents to all witnesses to terrible accidents - of whether they might be inconvenienced, implicated, or even blamed.
These last commentators have made an exemplar of an old news story from Nanjing that concerned a man named Peng Yu and his unhappy experience of being sued by an injured woman he brought to hospital, after she mistakenly identified him as the person responsible for having pushed her from a bus. Many have taken the moral of this story to be that we should think twice before getting involved in others' misfortunes, but they have missed a more subtle and important point. The blame of the case should most certainly not be aimed at the imagined foolishness of a Good Samaritan who tried to help an old woman - or even at the woman herself, whose confusion in the circumstances, though unfortunate, is understandable. Rather, one has to ask why the court should declare that it was a sign of Peng Yu's guilt of having caused the woman's injuries that he was willing to wait in the hospital to ensure that she received proper treatment. The court's expectation seems to have been that only a guilty conscience could have driven a man to display such a simple act of care towards a stranger. They then ordered him to pay damages to the woman without seeking further evidence. Clearly, these events demonstrate a problem that extends further than the people involved in the accident, and the rights and wrongs of what they did on that day. We can see that the real fault is not with a traumatised lady's confusion, or with Peng's unhesitant courtesy, but with the absurd assumption made by the court.
In situations where luck, insight, and courage are lacking in China's individual citizens (as has been the case since the dawn of history, throughout the world), it is up to our public institutions, and our laws, to provide a counterweight to our individual and collective fear, our shame, and our selfish excuses, and to try to ensure that fairness and good judgement are in with a chance. Perhaps it is the respect paid in our country even today to the Confucian idea of human perfectibility that makes us deaf and blind us to our recurrent weaknesses, but these weaknesses are a fact that we continue to live with. We could stand around for another five millennia making moral distinctions between noble people and small-hearted people and downright evil people, and passing judgement upon them, but the truth remains that all such people exist, and that society must be fashioned from an understanding of people as they are, rather than as we would wish them to be.
Our emotional responses prompted, and remain central to, this discourse. The consideration of human feelings should be literally at the heart of any society; however, sooner or later we must engage our heads. Our responsibility now is to turn our minds towards generating constructive suggestions for how to inspire improvements in the reality beyond our individual lives, that the lives of all may be protected and enhanced. Wang Yiqing, in a short but thoughtful piece entitled 'Improve social norms and regulations' (China Daily 2011.10.24), urges us to 'rebuild the moral fabric of society'. This, I suggest, cannot happen merely by a hundred million bloggers wishing it, however much hand-wringing, eye-dabbing, and strong language accompany their sentiments. The most lasting change for the better by which we should seek to honour Wang Yue's memory, and comfort her grieving family, cannot take place in our sensation-enslaved hearts, but in the laws and institutions of this country. By considering the role of hospitals, courts, the police, traffic law, urban design, and even schools in shaping our every moral action, we may reach a far more powerful insight into why we each behave in the way we do than any amount of individual soul-searching might achieve.
Thus, I wish to make two concrete proposals:
1) A road accident relief fund. The vast majority of road accidents involve motor vehicles of one sort or another, and although only a minority of people own a car, everyone is at some risk of being killed by one. I therefore propose that each city or other jurisdiction with the power to grant vehicle licenses should collect, by means of a motor vehicle tax, a fund to cover the cost of all medical treatment, both emergency and long term, required by people injured on the nation's roads. This would remove the apprehensions arising from pecuniary considerations that are currently the cause of so much hesitation in bystanders who should be rushing to victims' assistance. When somebody is bleeding by the side of the road, it is an absurd cruelty at such a time to have to entertain any thoughts of how much their treatment will cost, and who will pay. Some accidents are nobody's fault, so it is not helpful or reasonable for the victim or their supporters to waste any time looking for someone to blame, so that they can be forced to pay. And in situations where a certain party is clearly to blame, all criminal proceedings or civil claims for compensation can proceed as normal, after surviving victims have been restored to health. Hospitals and ambulances should simply open their doors to road accident victims, and the cost of their treatment shared equitably between vehicle license-holders across the jurisdiction. No driver can ever guarantee that they won't be involved in an accident in which other people are badly hurt, so this provision would act as a kind of collective insurance policy for drivers, as much as for pedestrians and cyclists, against their obligations in such unfortunate events.
2) A 'duty to rescue' law. Such a law would make it an offence NOT to offer assistance to people in urgent need of medical care, or facing any other serious sort of peril. Some other countries around the world have enacted legislation of this sort (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duty_to_rescue). In France, for example, it is an offence to "non-assistance à personne en danger"; a meaning clear, I think, in any language. By such a simple measure, the state would provide a strong incentive for us all to set aside personal considerations and treat every human being in danger as we know we really should. The law would apply in situations potentially very different from traffic accidents, but that would be a strength. Imagine, if you will, a situation where a child is drowning, and an adult quite capable of swimming out and rescuing it, for their own reasons, stands by. Currently, no criminal case or civil suit can be brought against them. Imagine now that you are the parent of that child, and how you would feel towards a person who did nothing to save them. Would you not feel wronged? Would you not feel that your child had been wronged? Currently, we would have to tell such a parent to forget about it, and to try to get on with their emptied life. A 'duty to rescue' law would show some compassion towards victims and their families on occasions that bystanders failed to act, and it would save Chinese lives on the occasions that they did.
I believe neither of these proposals to be especially complicated. Both would aid the speedier transit of injured people to receiving medical attention, and thereby perhaps save many lives. When the laws of a country work in favour of human goods, people are delighted to follow them. By these simple measures, we will all feel safer knowing that if we are hurt on the road the hospital won't have to wait for the bank to open, and that all people present are legally bound to help us. And we will all feel better about ourselves knowing that we shall not hesitate, and have nothing to fear, in doing the right thing for others in the same predicament. There will be objections, of course - so why not discuss them here? If you can see a problem with these proposals, or have an alternative to suggest, let the world know! Together, we can think these problems through till we find a workable solution. Together, we can make China a safer and more compassionate place for everyone.
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