There has been a predictable uproar online in the wake of a video showing a young British man brazenly sexually assaulting a Chinese woman by the side of a road in downtown Beijing late on Tuesday night. The video, which has attracted more than 8 million views on video-sharing website youku.com, shows the man standing over a distressed woman lying on a roadside flowerbed with her pants around her knees.
In the recording the woman cries, "Help! I don't know him," and a Chinese man confronts the foreigner. The next scene sees the dazed Briton lying in the middle of the road, receiving another stomp to the abdomen.
Unsurprisingly, there was praise from Web users gratified by street justice. However, there's something morally abhorrent with taking pleasure in seeing a prone human being, no matter how despicable he may be, being attacked and unable to defend himself.
The incident has shed light on a number of things, not least of all how deep the divide runs between Chinese and foreigners. However, let's be clear: this attack shouldn't be polarized as a "foreigner versus Chinese" showdown.
Foreigners, for better or worse, are lumped together as a collective bunch in China. This is the reason they have an all-encompassing term in Chinese, no matter their ethnic or cultural differences, as laowai. This is the reason an entertainer can become a sensation online for making a video playing up to the most clichéd, tired stereotypes of various nationalities. This is the reason that historical figures, such as Lin Zexu who took a social and moral stand against the British during the first Opium War (1839-42), are revered as patriots.
A security guard, surnamed Wu, told this newspaper: "After I grabbed his neck and saw he was a laowai, I felt more obligated to save the girl." Think of the outcry if a person in your home country said he "felt more obligated" to save a woman being attacked after identifying the perpetrator as a foreigner.
Foreigners win adulation and even evoke domestic shame in China when depicted helping others. Two recent examples include a young American man in Nanjing who shared his McDonald's meal with a beggar, and a Brazilian man in Dongguan who was beaten up after trying to stop a thief while passersby looked on.
Conversely, when foreigners are exposed committing crimes, such as sexual harassment or drug smuggling, they draw scorn on an arguably greater scale than if the perpetrator was Chinese.
The truth is that no nationality has sovereignty over good or evil deeds. Acts of kindness and horror are committed by people all over the world every day. Upon reading news of last week's attack, I recoiled in shock, then instinctively cringed knowing the impending backlash against foreigners, who are unfortunately often tarred with the same brush.
There were no winners in last week's video. Two wrongs, no matter how satisfying the second may seem, don't make a right. The only person who can hold his head high from the assault is the middle-aged man who restrained an enraged youth from inflicting further harm on the prone Briton. Let's be frank, he wasn't going anywhere in his semi-conscious state and police were on the scene in minutes.
Regrettably, lynch mob justice is still deemed a suitable means of address in China. The popularity of human flesh searches, a ruthless online process that exposes individuals' personal details, is testament to this.
Make no mistake that the victim of the incident wasn't the foreigner who took what could be deemed as an excessive beating. It was the woman - somebody's sister, daughter, cousin - shown at her most vulnerable moment and then beamed online for millions to view.
No effort was made by video-sharing websites to obscure her face. China's blogosphere and media is far more candid than the West. It makes no hesitation airing pictures of private grief from mourning family members or bed-ridden disaster victims. However, broadcasting a scene a young woman will forever try to forget to the nation, knowing full well it would set Web users' blood boiling, is a new low. Let's hope money from the advertisers featured in the prelude to the video was worth it because it was a hefty price for a woman's dignity.