10/25/2011 09:15 EDT | Updated 12/25/2011 05:12 EST

Shame on China? Shame on Us

Screen Grab

Police are rounding up the bystanders who launched a nation-wide soul search in China.

The authorities are using surveillance video that showed 18 people passing by the limp body of two-year-old Yueyue in the six minutes after she was crushed by a van in Foshan's bustling market district.

One mother in the southern Chinese city ushered her daughter quickly past the haemorrhaging child.

She later told local media that Yueyue's spattered blood had frightened her, but she was ashamed of her inaction. Several drivers claimed they didn't see the toddler even though the security camera recorded vehicles swerving to avoid Yueyue.

The resounding question became: why was this child left for dead in the street, as if she were roadkill?

The answer has been a mass indictment from the public, not just for the hit-and-run driver or the pedestrians who sidestepped Yueyue, but for all the people in China. International news coverage -- from front-page stories in reputable papers to anonymous online threads -- frequently blamed an alleged inherent flaw in Chinese people that makes their blood run cold.

Judgmental overtones seeped into the news sections, a place supposedly reserved for objective reports. One newspaper called the incident "mass indifference." In the Globe and Mail online, one comment read, "...human life has never been worth much in China."

The surveillance footage went viral. A YouTube viewer declared "Shame on China." Other viewers called the Chinese "animals" or "uncivilized" in comments that ranged from racist to pleas for Chinese genocide.

In the days following Yueyue's accident, more nuanced theories have emerged about the drivers' and bystanders' behaviour, blaming the authoritarian state, a culture of fear left over from the Cultural Revolution, the moral vacuum and materialism formed in the wake of China's rapid economic development, to China's lack of Good Samaritan laws. Blame shifted from the people to the nation's social mores to its political and judiciary systems.

We don't want to detract from this horrific tragedy. It's a travesty that young Yueyue, who later died in hospital, was ignored until a trash collector pulled her to the side of the road. But this is not a uniquely Chinese travesty.

Shame on China, undoubtedly. But shame on us, too.

The Bystander Effect originated in North America with a brutal murder.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in a New York apartment complex. Of more than 30 witnesses, none responded to her screams. The case spawned research into a tendency for members of large crowds not to intervene during an emergency.

We'd like to believe that most Canadians would have helped Yueyue or Genovese.

No one at Greater Niagara General Hospital rushed to the aid of 82-year-old Doreen Wallace when she fell and broke her hip in the hospital's lobby last week. Even nurses refused to intervene until an ambulance was called, presumably to take Wallace to hospital -- from the hospital. Wallace lay bleeding for 30 minutes until a passing doctor hoisted her into a wheelchair.

Two weeks ago, 15-year-old Jamie Hubley took his own life. The Ottawa teen was long the target of homophobic taunts at school, and had blogged about his isolation in the months leading up to his death. His suicide note is a blog post: "This hurts too much."

Jamie's death has subjected educators, and even national policy, to public scrutiny. Some say fault lies in part with teachers for not intervening to stop the bullying, and others have raised questions about a national suicide prevention strategy.

Human compassion appears to be missing from this brief summary of recent news headlines. But compassion is sought after, at least in the zeitgeist of pop culture.

Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life soared to the New York Times bestseller list earlier this year. Armstrong writes: "Compassion impels us to... dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there..."

Her 12-step compassion program resonated with readers. Every popular book fills a niche. Maybe Armstrong filled a void for those seeking a kind of compassion rehab.

Are some of us looking for redemption?

A recent episode of the hit TV show House dealt with a patient who wanted to donate all his wealth, as well as sacrifice his life to donate both of his kidneys to two strangers. The TV doctors called him "crazy."

Turns out extreme altruism was just a symptom of an undiagnosed thyroid disorder.

What we can assume from the above examples is that there is a disconnect between our search for compassion and a failure to act with compassion towards others.

Stooping to help a listless toddler bleeding in the street, raising our voices to stop the taunts of bullies, or rushing to the aid of a fallen senior; these are the actions that should form the basis of humanity.