15 September 2014

Kindness of Strangers 陌生人的仁慈

It was around 9pm Sunday night when I received a frantic text message on my iPhone.
“Jason, I got a problem! I missed my flight and need cash to buy a new ticket. My ATM card doesn’t work in HK. Can you give me your credit card number? I’ll pay you back when I’m back in the Philippines.”
The S.O.S. was from Carlos, a young journalist from Manila visiting Hong Kong for the weekend. We had met the first time at a media event just the day before. My instinct told me it was probably a scam – earlier this year my brother got a phone call from a mysterious man saying that a distant relative of ours had been hit by a motorcycle and needed money for surgery. My brother hung up before the man finished talking.

I was about to delete the text message when another one buzzed in.
“This is for real. I’m stuck at the airport. I’ll pay you back. Promise!”
I decided to put my foot down.
“We just met. I don’t feel comfortable giving out my credit card number over the phone. Sorry and good luck.”
Carlos made it back to Manila that same night. The next morning he sent me an e-mail to explain what had happened at the airport and how he had managed to get home eventually. After contacting four or five people in Hong Kong, only his cousin who works here had believed him and was willing to lend him money. Everybody else had declined to help – I was one of them. “We aren’t a very trusting people,” I apologized to Carlos in my reply. Living in a big city, it seems, has turned us into Bad Samaritans.

*                    *                  *

Bystander apathy in action

When it comes to dispensing kindness to strangers, Hong Kongers can be a bit schizophrenic. We rank 10th out of 135 countries on the World Giving Index, donating generously to anyone in need, from earthquake victims in Sichuan to starving children in far-flung corners of the world. Yet, for simple things like holding the door for a mother with a baby-stroller or pressing the “open door” button in a lift, we can be downright stone-hearted. Every now and then, I hear scathing accounts of urban apathy from friends and co-workers. A lawyer in my department recently complained to me that she had once slipped and fell in a crowded shopping mall but no one had gone to her aid. I have witnessed an elderly deliveryman tripping over an uneven sidewalk in front of a half-dozen men smoking outside an office building, none of whom had chosen to act.

But each time I am about to give up on humanity, a heart-warming Good Samaritan story will reel me back in. A few weeks ago, my hairdresser Herbert fell down a flight of stairs after a night of drinking at Knutsford Terrace. The fall left him with a blood clot in his brain and put him in the ICU for a week. “If it weren’t for this passer-by who stopped and called an ambulance,” said Herbert, “I wouldn’t be cutting your hair right now.” Anecdotal evidence like that tells me that bystander behavior is more complex than I think, and that there is much more at play than the easy conclusion that we have all become creatures of indifference.

Creatures of indifference?

In a chilly spring morning in 1964, 29-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed and killed in front of her New York City home while 37 neighbors watched but did not intervene. The Genovese murder shocked America and inspired social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to begin their seminal research on bystander apathy. The team designed a series of experiments to analyze helping behavior and postulated that a bystander goes through a five-step process before intervention: he first notices the event, identifies it as an emergency, takes responsibility for helping, formulates a response and finally takes action.

Darley and Latané found that the presence of other people can disrupt the bystander’s decision process at the third stage (taking responsibility) and turn a Good Samaritan into a passive onlooker. They argued that the psychological cost of doing nothing is significantly reduced by the assumption that somebody else will help and by the sharing of guilt among the group. It is this “diffusion of responsibility” – rather than a lack of compassion – that led to the neighbors’ inaction during Genovese’s attack. Diffusion of responsibility also explained why I declined Carlos’ call for help. I had assumed, consciously or subconsciously, that he must have friends and relatives who are in a better position to bail him out than someone he has just met.

Who really killed Genovese?

Half a century after the Genovese murder, the debate over bystander apathy has reignited once again, this time in the Wild Wild East of Modern China. On 13 October 2011, a two-year-old girl named Wang Yue (小悦悦) was playing on the street when she was run over by two separate delivery trucks. A surveillance camera showed that 18 passersby ignored the victim; some even skirted around the blood. Wang died at the hospital a week later. Within days, the video went viral on social media and sparked a nationwide discussion on the erosion of social conscience. Wang’s tragic death is a wake-up call for China not only because of the shocking callousness of the passers-by (a textbook case of diffusion of responsibility), but also because it reveals a far more troubling factor that affects bystander behavior: fraud.

I’m not talking about phone scams – like the one my brother encountered – or identity thefts – what I feared when I was asked to give out my credit card number. I'm talking about victim’s extortion, a burgeoning social phenomenon in China. It all started in the morning of 20 November 2006, when Peng Yu (彭宇), a college student in Nanjing, aided an elderly woman who had fallen off the bus. Instead of showing gratitude, the woman accused Peng of pushing her and filed a lawsuit demanding RMB45,000 (US$7,000) in medical expenses. Siding with the “victim,” the judge wrote: “According to common sense, the defendant wouldn't have helped the plaintiff if he weren’t in some way responsible.” Since then, several judges in other provinces followed the same line of reasoning in similar rescuer-turned-culprit lawsuits. In one case, a storekeeper accused of knocking down a customer whom he had helped was exonerated by a closed-circuit television. The footage showed that the storekeeper was nowhere near the victim when she fell.

Poor Wang Yue

China is no stranger (pun intended) to the persecution of do-gooders. Social advocates like Ai Weiwei (艾未未) and Zhao Lianhai (趙連海) are routinely harassed, beaten and jailed for speaking out against injustice and government corruption. That, combined with the presumption of guilt in Peng Yu-type lawsuits, has taught ordinary citizens to mind their own business – as did the 18 bystanders who left Wang Yue for dead on the street. An opinion poll in Beijing found that 87% of respondents said they would not aid old people who have fallen for fear of being sued. These days, bystanders have learned to self-protect by taking pictures on their smart phones before lifting someone up or performing CPR. Likewise, the only way for some senior citizens to get help is to declare aloud “I fell by myself. I won't sue you!” This is a country with some serious soul-searching to do.

Facing a mounting public outcry, Shenzhen passed China’s first Good Samaritan law in August 2013. The new law punishes false accusers and absolves from liability anyone who renders assistance to those in need. In November 2013, the Beijing government launched a pilot accident insurance programme for the city’s three million senior citizens in an attempt to discourage injured elders from turning Good Samaritans into ATM machines. The hope is that the combination of carrots and sticks will go some way to mend a social fabric ripped apart by corruption, income disparity and old age poverty. 

"Will anybody help?"

Despite legal measures in test cities like Shenzhen and Beijing, victim’s extortion has shown no signs of letting up. Just this past January, a garbage collector in Guangdong committed suicide after an elderly man he had rescued blamed him for the injury and demanded hundreds of thousands in compensation. It is a reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight, especially for a nation of 1.4 billion people. It will be some time before citizens will feel at ease again to be Good Samaritans, like the dozens of commuters in Perth, Australia who performed an urban miracle last week by tilting a subway train to save a man trapped in the platform gap. Until then, people may want to wear a GoPro camera whenever they go out. 

No diffusion of responsibility there


This article previously appeared in the September 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO


  1. I recall reading that the Kitty Genovese issue is kind of a myth, but there definitely is such a thing as bystander apathy. In highly populated areas it seems to be worse, with the endless anonymous faces of strangers seeming less and less like individual people. Small towns generally have different cultural attitudes, right?

    And the infamous cases of Chinese extortion of helpers make it all seem even worse. It is good to know public outcry in China can change laws, that's a start, but hard to measure if it's making a big difference just yet.

    Perhaps I'm cruel, but I wouldn't have given my credit card number to an acquaintance like that at all. That whole situation is a major red flag. I don't know the details, but I wonder if you should still believe there was a cousin whom eventually lent money .The whole thing comes with major red flags. Don't people have family who can order tickets online from anywhere in the world? Don't feel bad about that. Be generous and charitable, and sure many HKers should do more, but don't be stupid.

  2. I just encountered a similar experience a few weeks ago receiving a short email from a long-time friend abroad ( whom I correspond only once or twice a year during festivities ) about needing help and a favour. I sensed instantly that it was the usual fraud mail, i.e. scam or rogue mail sent when one's email account is hacked/hijacked with all addressees therewith. So, I promptly returned a mail asking for confirmation and it really turned out that I was right.

    Based on your description, Carlos is indeed nobody more than a stranger. Yes, a Stranger. And your inaction to his text messages was normal and rational. Well done. No emotional hard feelings involved. Common sense dictates that a cordial friendship does not strike chord in just one meet ( rarely happens in real life !!! ); so while that probability is low, there is virtually no such guilt or personal regret/shame for being "that" friend in need is a friend indeed.

    I like the series of real life incidents you mentioned in the article that clearly illustrate both sides of the fence on Kindness of Strangers. Most of which I have read about before. Personally, if I were in your shoes, I would have the same inaction with Carlos based on my own defense line of reasoning, which not necessarily always need be a positive reaction when in a strange complicated blurred situation.

    In this particular instance, even if the case was a genuine one, it was not a matter of immediate life and death; except of some minor inconvenience to Carlos. Definitely, he would not be put behind bars or be unduly hopelessly inconvenienced if he did not get help at all.

    There's bound to be a strange and shocking feeling that a person whom one have met only once could ask for help so quickly, hopefully not his last resort in his list of friends or family members in his long list. In this modern world of high technology, I fail to calibrate why he did not use a direct personal phone call ( if he did not have a local cellphone, HK airport's courtesy phone is free ) to speak to you rather than send a text message. When for sake of decency, he could have been forthcoming and more direct when asking for help urgently with sincerity. If it is so critical, it is just a phone call away.

    Just like the reader who commented above, I concur that a one-time acquaintance friend, no matter what his or her background is, should not be fully trusted as good friendship "rarely" strikes at first instance although there may be possibility. This is just like: Rome was not built in a day.

    And to ask for someone to part with their credit card no. in text message with no indication of amount limits involved is a ridiculous request. Not to say that he would not repay, any sane person would cast doubt, that's for sure. This is highly suspicious even when a caller at the other end of the phone is a family member ( whose familiar voice one will recognize ) being kidnapped and ask for assistance, least to say over text messages with no form of verification.

    I may sound unrealistic, harsh or cold blooded, but I am definitely not one that is easy to be reasonable. When confronted with these types of kindness, I use common sense and judgement on a case by case basis. We often need to make a call everytime and not be victimized for being a Samaritan. Also, there is often a fine line between a good Samaritan and a rogue Samaritan.

  3. In Carlos' defense, it was a REAL emergency and everything he told me was TRUE. We remain friends on Facebook.