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.


  1. Well, I think it is important to remember that in a country with huge poverty and overcrowding, the value of life is going to be cheaper. You must remember that a hundred years ago, public executions took place in lots of Westsern countries.

    • ”a hundred years ago, public executions took place in lots of Westsern countries”

      you’re right my friend: 100 years ago
      this the problem: you are a big techno society , but your mind still remains to stonage

  2. I’ve always thought that the phrase refers more to social immobility, feebleness when it comes to any state-controlled affairs, the impossibility of “be the change you wanna see” etc., rather than the “bystander effect.” Kind of similar to “life’s a bitch, and then you die”…

  3. I think this has something to do with the Communist party culture. Since the cultural revolution everything has been turned upside down in that country. In the 60s the students were ordered to denigrate their teachers, sons and daughters to report their parents. In Chinese classical culture there’s the belief in virtue and being harmonious with nature and the universe. But under the Communist Party that was turned into Mao’s famous slogan:

    “To struggle against the heavens is endless joy, to struggle against the earth is endless joy, to struggle against people is endless joy.”

    Nowadays in China, if you do a good deed in public, you may get yourself into big trouble. There was a 69-year old lady who collapsed on the road in China. A young driver saw her and got out of the car to help. The lady then claimed the guy knocked her down with the car and sued him for $15k.

    People in China are afraid to help one another or get involved in some incident, but it’s not like they don’t understand what is justice. It’s the communist party that’s pushing people to the extreme.

  4. Whenever the citizens of a country have still not progress towards more empathy towards their fellow countrymen, it is testimony that their central, provincial, city and county government has failed on this point. No matter how much they claimed China has progressed, the fact remains that China has NOT progressed at all in the area of common civilize actions.

    People here tends to talk more, talk big and do less whenever possible. One can observe this at governmental offices, at the poor quality of services handed out daily.

    China will only change when the Central Government makes it mandatory and hold all provincial, city, county and village officials responsible. The use of withholding of funds from lower rung of government would be a great incentive for these groups to do something to better the behavior of her people.

    In addition, the institution of stiffer penalties and fines towards bystanders would be another way to push people into “helping” their fellow citizenships, such as the toddler cited in the article.

  5. My first visit to China was in the summer of 1989. I’ve arrived at the capital of Guandong, then the capital of Sichuan. I’ve found Chinese people being extremely cautious yet friendly in both places. The older generation was very on guard with their opinions as if someone would report to the officials of wrong doing. While driving from the airport to the hotel, a young man was run over by a truck. It literally paralyzed the traffic for over 2 hours since lots of people jumped out of their cars to help this poor guy. 15 years later, I visited Sichuan again. Unfortunately a pregnant woman was brushed by a car and again the traffic was paralyzed for almost 4 hours. The reason of the traffic jam was caused by surrounding people were giving her phone numbers and promising becoming a witness for her. The pregnant woman had some light scratches on her only, but she was screaming and yelling how much it hurts and how her child would be effected. After the car driver offered RMB3,000.00 cash right there, she miraculously recovered without going to a doctor or hospital. I asked my taxi driver about his take on this subject, he replied “Oh, no big deal. We learn from the Americans. It’ll take longer time to get the money if she had gone thru the law process.”
    Chinese people are trained by their government but learn from the western tv shows a lot. The country is communism in deed but westernized under the surface. The conflict of traditional morality(pre-culture revolution) and new knowledge from the western countries is tremendous. While conscience was the most important issue of being a human in the past, making money the fastest way becomes the biggest concern nowadays. It all depends on how the Chinese government will do with their education in the future, otherwise the bystander syndrome will remain the same just as you can see in any country worldwide. The only difference is how populated a country is.

  6. To understand China, you need to steer your mind away from “Asian” stereotyping. China has no value for human life because they are utilitarian (collectively so). They value the homo sapien as a large scale machine (and collectively moreso than individually). The individual has little to no value at all, with the group having a little more importance, but all from a mechanical (utility) standpoint throughout. This differs greatly from a place like Japan that is a “collectivistic” and values what is best for the group (from a human standpoint) than for the individual (that is secondary but still exists). This difference is why a Japanese person is highly insulted if mistaken for Chinese. It is not to say that Chinese people don’t have human feelings, but in their culture there is a very very tiny segment where they are allowed to exist. It is no wonder they became the manufacturing hub of the world… as a society they are the bodyless soulless multinational corporation’s dream come true. It is not the result of the capitalism, rather, the capitalism and its migration there was predictable. The amazing thing is the onset taking as long as it did. And all this compares to “Western” in being individualistic, beginning in the “rugged” (human – for some) sense (collective 2nd), into materialistic sense, and quickly approaching the utilitarian sense… along with the other half in the early periods of US and European story (slave holding and slaves) that is an obscene shameful heart wrenching mind boggling story in itself.

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