Recent guidelines by Chinese authorities on how to assist an elderly person who has fallen in the street, have unleashed a debate among Chinese netizens. They are in a catch-22 between wanting to help, and a fear of being sued by predatory elderly fall victims. The government guidelines have piled insult upon injury, according to some netizens.
Falling down is a leading cause of death for Chinese citizens aged 65 and above, according to Yang Maowei, Associate Professor of the First Hospital of China Medical University. However, in recent years, there have been frequent reports of such deaths in public places with no one helping the victims, Yang said.
It seems that Chinese people have become reluctant to help because they worry that the person they help may later turn around and sue them, as that is what’s been happening a number of times in recent years. As a consequence, several elderly have been left to die in the streets with people passing by or watching, but not helping them.
On Dec. 29, 2010, an 83-year-old retired veteran, Mr. Zheng, fell while walking on a sidewalk in Fuzhou City of southeast China’s Fujian Province. A handful of people stopped and looked on, but no one helped him. When the ambulance arrived, the man had already stopped breathing, Southeast Express reported.
Another similar case happened on Dec. 14, 2010, in a community of Shenzhen City when 78-year-old Mr. Xiao Yusheng fell and was left lying on the ground until his son found him 20 minutes later. None of the passersby tried to help, according to a report by Southern Metropolis Daily.
Most recently, an 88-year-old man, Mr. Li, fell on Sept. 2 in front of a market in Wuhan, less than 100 meters from his home. He tried to get up, but didn’t have the strength, Chu Tian Metropolis Daily reported on Sept. 4.
A nearby vendor said that Mr. Li lay on the ground for one hour, with many people stopping to look at him, but no one helped him up. Eventually, someone informed his family, and he was taken to a hospital, but he had already died of asphyxiation.
Mr. Li’s 87-year-old wife, Zhou Juzhen, issued a statement three days later saying, “If I fall on the sidewalk, people who help me will not be held liable for any consequences.”
Ms. Zhou said she wanted to remove people’s fear of negative consequences in case she ever needed help in an emergency situation.
Fear of Helping
Southern Metropolis Daily said in a Sept. 9 report The Fear of Helping the Elderly is the Real Sorrow, that the phenomenon reflects Chinese people’s mistrust of society. The report cited three cases of people being sued after helping an elderly.
In 2006, Peng Yu, in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, helped an old lady who had fallen and broken a bone. She subsequently sued Peng, and the case went through three trials before the parties reached an agreement and the woman withdrew the case.
In another case in Tianjin in 2009, a Mrs. Wang fell down and was hurt when she illegally climbed over a roadside railing. Mr. Xu Yunhe, who happened to drive by, noticed her fall and stopped his car to help the old woman, bandaging her up and calling first-aid.
Mrs. Wang, however, claimed that Xu’s car had bumped into her and sued Xu in court. The court ruled that Xu should pay 100,000 yuan (US$15,654) in compensation.
On Aug. 26 of this year, Hong Bin, a bus driver, helped an old woman who had fallen in the street, but was accused of being the perpetrator. He was eventually exonerated through a monitoring video recording.
These three cases have attracted nationwide attention, and are said to be the reason for Chinese people’s reluctance of helping the elderly in emergency situations.
Ministry of Health Guidelines
Now China’s Ministry of Health issued guidelines on Sept. 6 on how to handle cases of elderly falling. But instead of addressing the worrisome legal liability issue, it focuses mainly on medical consequences of a fall and offers technical solutions to different fall scenarios, while also telling people to overcome embarrassment and psychological fear of helping.
This has further inflamed citizens who feel in a catch-22 between wanting to help and fearing being taken advantage of for their kindness.
One line in the guidelines that particularly irked netizens said, “whether or not to lend a hand depends on the situation.”
After the Ministry’s guidelines came out, Sina Weibo conducted a poll, asking people whether they are still willing to help an elderly who has fallen, considering the Ministry’s guidelines.
Of the 5,031 who voted, only 20 percent said yes, while 43 percent said no, and the remaining 38 percent said, they’re not sure.
Some people left comments expressing their inner conflicts and disillusionment over China’s sliding moral values:
“I dare not help, but I’ll run to a public phone booth to call 120, [the emergency number in China], and ask for an ambulance.”
“I can’t even protect my own safety. How can I have the ability to take care of others? It’s really funny!”
“To put it frankly, it reflects the degeneration of society’s morality. The culture has no direction, the morality has no bottom line, and the trust between people, and between people and the government is too low.”
“Unless I were Bill Gates, I would help for sure.”
“I would certainly help before. Now I’m really a bit afraid.”
“In today’s Chinese society, traditional values and virtues have been eradicated completely. No matter what guidelines are issued, when one really stands at a critical point, the law will not protect the poor people.”
“There’s no way out. The state educates us this way, and now it turns around to accuse us of having no morality. Isn’t that ridiculous? Whether to help is not a moral issue, but the crux of China’s current education.”
“At present, China’s social values are lost, and morality is ruined to the point of national doom.”
Read the original Chinese article