Long after the famous Kitty Genovese story — supposedly many people watched her being murdered without doing anything — doubt was cast on its accuracy. In the meantime, John Darley and Bibb Latane, two professors of psychology, it as the starting point for a series of experiments on what they called the bystander effect — the more bystanders, the less likely that each one will help. They concluded there was “diffusion of responsibility” — the more people that witness something, the less each witness feels responsible for doing something.
In China the problem is much worse. A few years ago a woman was hit by a car. A second car stopped to help her. The woman told the police that the second driver had hit her. The second driver was furious, gave many interviews, and eventually a witness was found who said it was the driver, not the injured woman, who was telling the truth. Someone I spoke to attributed her behavior to the need to pay hospital bills. The driver who hit her would never be caught, she reasoned. Maybe the second driver could be forced to pay.
My Chinese tutor, who is Korean, told me a story that illustrates the depth of Chinese bystander inaction and suggests another reason for it. A friend of hers was visiting from Korea. When this friend was in Wangjing (in the Chaoyang district of Beijing), she saw a person lying on a busy street, bleeding but still alive. Apparently the bleeding person had been hit by a car. Three hours later, the friend returned — and the accident victim was still there! Now dead. So, with difficulty — she doesn’t speak Chinese — she called the police.
The police treated her as a suspect. She was forced to come to the police station five times, for hours each time.
What a deterrent to calling the police! I cannot believe the police were so stupid as to consider a Korean tourist on foot who calls the police a serious suspect in the death of someone lying in the middle of traffic. I believe that by causing her a lot of trouble, they wanted to send a message: Leave us alone. The fewer calls they get, the less work they have to do. No wonder everyone ignored the bleeding victim.
“I am afraid I am scaring you,” said my Chinese teacher. “You are,” I said.