Good Samaritan law and repercussions on China

Harvey Dzodin China Plus Published: 2017-10-25 10:11:38
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By Harvey Dzodin

October 2017 is a memorable month in Beijing. We had lovely weather during the holidays and the 19th Party Congress will set China’s course for the next five years. It’s also memorable because a law I have long advocated, China’s Good Samaritan Law, became effective on October 1st. 

People in China who voluntarily come to the aid of others who are, or who they believe to be, injured, ill, in danger, or otherwise incapacitated, will not face civil liability in the event of harm caused to the victims.

College student Gong Tao donates blood at a blood donation bus at Tianjin Railway Station in Tianjin, north China, Aug. 13, 2015.[Photo: Xinhua]

College student Gong Tao donates blood at a blood donation bus at Tianjin Railway Station in Tianjin, north China, Aug. 13, 2015.[Photo: Xinhua]

Previously some judges had ruled that nobody would come to the aid of others unless they had caused the injury, and in the absence of solid evidence, used this flawed premise to find guilt in those who tried to help others. This warped thinking flew in the face of the ancient and venerable Chinese virtue of always helping others in need. People were afraid to help others, lest they become victims.

The result was that normally decent and caring Chinese people ignored the extreme plight of others such as two-year-old Wang Yue who wandered on to a street in Foshan, Guangdong when her mother was momentarily distracted. She was the victim of not one, but two, hit-and-run drivers. Her desperate situation was ignored by 18 people. She was finally pulled out of the road by a trash collector, but it was too late. This and similar shocking stories went viral and millions of people, not just in China, but in other countries, wondered what had become of compassion in China and the willingness of people to help others in need. Imagine what these kinds of stories do to China’s already mediocre soft power image!

Is the law perfect? Not surprisingly, no, as few laws suit everyone. As a lawyer, I would have preferred the Good Samaritan Law to exclude from protection acts of gross negligence as most such laws universally do. Victims are entitled to a standard of care that doesn’t severely injure them needlessly. Also, I would have preferred that the lowlifes who try to steal from others in this way be severely penalized both because they deserve it, and because it might have some deterrent effect on others thinking about also doing so. In addition, I would have established a fund to reward the heroes who took action, often jeopardizing their own safety.

Getting a law passed in China, as anywhere, isn’t easy. But passage is the easiest phase in the process of getting people to change their behavior to conform with new social norms.

As difficult and time consuming as it is sometimes is to enact proposed legislation into law, putting laws on the books and not enforcing them may in fact be worse than passing no laws at all. Why? Having laws that are not enforced breed contempt for the legal system and government from whence they originate. It breeds a dangerous cynicism from the governed toward those who govern.

To prevent this from happening, and to promote people helping others in dire straights, at least two things will have to happen. The law will have to be widely publicized so that people know it exists. This will require a significant PR campaign including stories, public service announcements, and advertisements in both conventional and new media that advise people that now they are free to help others without fear of being cheated. In addition and similarly, cases of Good Samaritans should be publicized and cases of cheaters trying to take advantage of the generosity of others should also be spread far and wide. I hope to put my activities into ensuring that this is the case.

While I greatly admire the parable of the Good Samaritan after which most of these laws are named because the victim there was Jewish, like me, I think in China the new law should be popularly called the Lei Feng law after the legendary soldier from Changsha who selflessly helped others. Upon hearing his name, every Chinese citizen would immediately "get" the law’s meaning but not every Chinese would be aware of the Western biblical story of the Good Samaritan. 

Much work remains. But I fully believe that passage of this law, once entering the pubic psyche, will considerably brighten the Chinese Dream while at the same time helping China build its soft power.

(Dr. Harvey Dzodin serves as Nonresident Research Fellow of the think tank Center for China and Globalization)

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