AN incident involving a foreigner who fainted on a Shanghai subway, touching off a stampede of passengers trying to get away from him, is sparking heated discussion this week in the ongoing debate about whether many Chinese lack compassion for strangers.
The debate got so heated on the Internet that the subway operator took the unusual step of releasing video of the incident so people could see exactly what happened.
I saw the video on the news, and it’s a bit bizarre and almost humorous the way everyone around the unfortunate man panicked and fled the train after he passed out.
That got me to thinking whether Americans might have reacted the same way if this happened in the US, and my conclusion is probably “no.”
I personally don’t believe the incident reflects a lack of caring among average Chinese people. Instead, it seems to reflect a deeper fear that many Chinese people have of trouble, hence their efforts to put as much distance between themselves and such incidents as possible.
It also reflects a certain “herd mentality” that often develops at the sight of anything even remotely unusual on the streets of China.
The event that sparked all the discussion occurred about two weeks ago on Metro Line 2 near the Jinke Road Station in Pudong. The train was between stops when a seated foreign man began to get groggy. He started to lean, bumping the person next to him, and then slumped down sideways onto the bench.
Apparently the man was OK and regained consciousness a short time later. But what attracted everyone’s attention was how other people reacted when the man passed out. As he began to slump and then lay motionless on the bench, everyone around him quickly moved away as if he were a toxic object.
Then as soon as the train pulled into the next station, the entire car emptied as people scrambled to get out. People in other cars, sensing that something was happening, also started to panic, leaving the entire subway platform in a state of disarray.
Meantime, the unconscious foreigner was alone in his car slumped over on the subway bench.
The subway operator took the rare step of releasing the video to show what actually happened, which really does seem to be that no one tried to provide direct assistance.
But it added that several people called for help and reported the situation as soon as they got off the train, and that one person even escorted the man back to his hotel.
If this had happened on a subway in the US, I’m fairly confident several people would have come to the man’s assistance, and one or more probably would have called on their cellphone or the train intercom for help. They probably would have helped the man off the train at the next stop, and then waited for professionals to arrive.
So why the huge panic in the case on Shanghai’s Line 2? My own theory is that many Chinese are simply averse to getting involved in any kind of trouble, especially if it could involve the police or other law enforcement officials.
No one in any country wants to get involved with anything too troublesome, but in this case such involvement could have made a big difference if the man was seriously ill.
‘Herd mentality’ common
Perhaps this particular reaction is a relic of an older mentality. During that time, most things involving the police really were a big deal, and people tried to avoid anything that might involve such trouble.
The other noteworthy thing about the case was the broader panic and confusion that developed after the passengers rushed out of the car.
Again, you also see such a herd-type behavior in similar situations in the West, but it often seems that in China such cases are far more common and spread more quickly.
Many of my Western friends and I often marvel at the crowds that quickly develop anytime there’s something out of the ordinary.
Two people arguing in public is almost certain to attract a big crowd, and so is someone giving away free goodies.
Rather than glance quickly at what is happening and then move on, many people will often stop and watch for minutes or even longer without saying or doing anything.
Luckily, the case with the man on the subway wasn’t too serious, and several people did come to his assistance from a distance.
But it does seem like a good chance to reflect on the local distaste for getting involved in anything unpleasant, and the need many people feel to avoid trouble at all costs.