The death of an 88-year-old man in Wuhan, Hubei Province Sunday, after he fell and was ignored by bystanders, has sparked a new round of debate on trust, legal procedures and moral decline in the country.
The old man, surnamed Li, fell at around 7:30 am at the exit of a vegetable market.
Passersbys surrounded him and watched, but none offered assistance. One hour later, Li's relatives, who lived 100 meters away, came and rushed him to the hospital.
However, the man died due to suffocation caused by a nosebleed.
"If someone had helped him and let his nosebleed flow out, he could have survived," Li's wife told the Chutian Metropolis Daily.
"The tragedy is apparently a result of several previous cases, in which people who had received help sued those who helped them for allegedly knocking them down," Wang Dawei, a professor at the Chinese People's Public Security University, told the Global Times.
On November 20, 2006, an elderly woman in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, who suffered two fractures after falling at a bus station successfully sued Peng Yu, a man who claimed to have voluntarily helped her.
Despite not having adequate evidence to reconstruct the scene, a local court found Peng guilty and ordered him to pay about 45,000 yuan ($7,057.17) in compensation to the elderly woman.
The verdict was based on "logical thinking," saying it was highly possible that Peng had knocked the woman down, or he would not have helped her to hospital. The case was eventually settled outside court with mediation from provincial officials.
On August 26, Yin Hongbin, a bus driver from Nantong, Jiangsu Province, stopped his vehicle after seeing an old woman lying under a tricycle.
After helping the old woman to the side of the road, the woman told police that it was Yin's bus that had knocked her down.
Surveillance footage eventually cleared the driver of the allegations.
Such cases have dealt a blow to the long-held value of helping the weak and forced people to think twice before doing a good deed, Wang said.
On February 22, passengers on a bus in Nanjing reportedly refused to help a 75-year-old man who had fallen while getting off until he yelled out, "I fell down myself. You don't need to worry, it's nothing to do with you."
Wu Songbai, 41, an art teacher in a primary school in Sichuan Province, said he would be reluctant to offer help in similar situations.
"It's not only those who fall, but also their family members who may put the blame on you, and you may have a hard time proving your innocence," Wu said.
But Yang Gongcheng, a 24-year-old IT engineer in Beijing, told the Global Times that he would not shy away from offering help in such circumstances.
"I would still offer help. But if they show any intention of blackmailing me, I would run away," Yang said.
According to a poll by people.com.cn, website of the People's Daily, 87 percent of 2,425 participants would not offer assistance if they came across an elderly person who had fallen down for fear of extortion, and only 13 percent said they would be willing to offer help.
Li Yingsheng, a professor at the School of Sociology and Population Studies of Renmin University of China, said that such cases showed that morality is lagging behind economic development in the country.
"But some of these cases were extreme, and the public should not throw away all the good, old deeds based on them. We can learn to be wise when offering help and at the same time avoid legal disputes," Li said, advising people in those situations to take pictures and obtain witnesses' contact details.
A commentary by the Economic Observer newspaper said that such cases reflected the weak links in the country's legal process and social security system.
"Peng's case set a false example for others where the provider of help cannot prove his innocence, the court's 'logical thinking' will favor the one who attempts extortion," the paper said.
"And if our social security system had reached all the people living at the bottom of society, there would have not been so many cases of cheating in other people's good deeds," it added.
Wang suggested that legislators hand out tougher punishments to those who tried to prey on other people's kindness.
"Their negative impact on society is massive. Relevant departments need to be cautious in handling such cases and avoid hurting the innocent," Wang added.
Mo Ting contributed to this story