The Value of Life and Chinese Hypocrisy

Journalist Ding Yu is the host of Interviews Before Execution. Photo from Boing Boing

Journalist Ding Yu is the host of Interviews Before Execution. Photo from Boing Boing

Recently, a colleague at work told me this supposedly common Chinese phrase: 生活就像强奸,如果奋力反抗无济于事,那就躺下静静享受吧. Roughly translated, this phrase in English is as follows: “Life is like rape. If you are unable to resist it, then you might as well lay back and enjoy it.” While this statement is typically used to describe situations where people are playfully goaded into doing certain things (e.g. a friend “making you” go see a terrible movie with her), I was still taken aback at the brutality of the words.

At first, I wondered if this phrase serves as an indicator of a disregard of women’s status. But while it is true that women in China cannot by any means be declared as having complete equality with men, I can’t help but feel that this isn’t a women’s rights issue. After all, though women still make up a very small percent of government officials, they are making up for the low numbers by succeeding extraordinarily in the private sector. As the Washington Post reported last November, about 30% of entrepreneurs in China are women; in addition, Forbes’ list of self-made female billionaires showed that 6 Chinese women make up the list of the top 14. China is also one of the few countries that officially recognize International Women’s Day, just recently celebrated on March 8th.

(On a side note, maybe it was ignorant of me to automatically assume that using the word “rape” is associated only with female victims. ChinaSmack recently posted an article about a drunken woman who violated a man on the streets of Chengdu. Of course, the controversy surrounding both the incident and the public’s reactions is a whole different issue..)

So if this carelessly tossed around joke about rape doesn’t refer to sexual discrimination, what else can it be mocking? I’m personally inclined to reflect on what this means about the value of life in China. This isn’t a novel concept; in fact, there are a countless number of articles online about the disregard for life in China. A big story back in 2011 talked of a little girl in Foshan, Guangdong Province, who was run over by two separate cars. The first driver, after first running her over with his front tires, paused for a few seconds before continuing driving, running the toddler over again with his back tires. When asked why he did so, the driver replied that the fees associated with the girl’s death would be less expensive than her medical bills should she have lived.

Value of life is an over-discussed issue. What I find interesting, however, is the hypocrisy of the Chinese people. Whenever anything even distinctly related to injustice happens, you can bet that you’ll find thousands and even millions of comments on Weibo criticizing the guilty. Yet – if the Chinese have such a profound sense of righteousness, why is it that they also seem to suffer from heavy doses of bystander effect? In the case of the Foshan toddler, it took 18 people to see, pass, and even deliberately walk around the injured child before a trash collector finally dragged her out of the street. This trash collector was heavily praised all around on the internet, but I can’t help but wonder if all these commentators who seem to so clearly know right from wrong would have done the same thing. After all, is it plausible to assume that those 18 onlookers all didn’t think helping a dying toddler was the “right” thing to do?

This isn’t to say that China is the only country who partakes in this hypocrisy; bystander effect is something that occurs worldwide. However, when even the government allows such publicly announced and frequent executions (with about 4,000 executions per year, China puts more people to death annually than the rest of the world combined) with haunting before-death interviews (that instead of being cancelled last year, is now simply on hiatus), I can’t help but feel that China seems less concerned with the value of human life.

I first arrived in Beijing just a few weeks after the massive flooding that had occurred in the city. In the cab ride from the airport to my apartment, my boss, who was travelling with me, mentioned that 70-something people had died in the floods. Without skipping a beat, my taxi driver retorted: “That’s okay. There are too many people in Beijing anyway.” While it is rare to find someone speak so blatantly and unconcernedly about death, I think this reaction speaks to a common mindset in this country: that, compared to other countries, China finds life to be considerably less precious.