The killing of baby Haobo has shaken the nation, after the manhunt turned into an Internet-fueled drama followed by millions. And it has led to widespread soul-searching over what breakneck development has done to the social fabric of a country where, many think, such horrific acts used to be exceptionally rare.
On Monday, the baby’s father, identified in the media only as Xu, left his two-month-old child in the back seat of the family Toyota RAV4, with the keys in the ignition, while he quickly stopped into a grocery store where he worked. By the time he came out, both his car and his baby were gone.
China’s most popular social media platform, Weibo, picked up the story of the kidnapped child, and quickly had millions of users invested in the search. Local officials in Jilin, in northeastern China, acted quickly, ordering on the same day a province-wide manhunt that involved 3,500 police officers. According to some reports, as many as 10,000 officers took part, including in the neighboring provinces of Liaoning and Inner Mongolia.
On Tuesday evening, Zhou Xijun, 48, turned himself in, telling police that he left the stolen vehicle in Gongzhuling county, about 60 kilometers from Changchun, where he strangled and buried the baby in snow.
The vehicle was later recovered by police. The child’s body, however, is still missing.
After the baby’s grisly fate was announced by the police, China’s netizens reacted with an outpouring of condolences and grief. As some Changchun citizens gathered at a square for a candlelight vigil, many others expressed shock over the brutal murder. Some called for the death penalty.
Sarah Ji, a writer, suggested on Weibo that Chinese have become so blinded by money that they are willing to commit senseless crimes. “To strangle a baby and bury it in snow for a car worth 200,000 yuan [$32,000] shows how backwards people’s lives are here,” she wrote.
This is not the first time the death of a child involving vehicles has led to questions about China’s values.
In 2011, a two-year-old girl, nicknamed Yueyue, was left to die on a street in southern China after two vehicles hit her and fled the scene. Disturbing footage caught on a security camera shows the toddler wandering out into the street near her father’s hardware store, when she was struck by a van, not once, but twice. Then a truck ran over her body, which had been left there by the previous driver. Perhaps even more shocking, the footage continues, showing dozens of pedestrians, bicyclists and other vehicles maneuvering around her, barely reacting to Yueyue’s motionless body.
Yueyue sustained serious injuries and died a week later in a Guangdong province hospital.
The disturbing video can be seen here.
A report on CNN posed the question, “Why is it so difficult for the Chinese nowadays to be a Good Samaritan?” The report suggested that one reason is that China is experiencing a moral and spiritual void, in a society focused on money, economic development and power, that now judges success by those measures, instead of humanity and compassion.
Experts, however, say this is not unique to China or a question of morals, but rather a commentary on group mentality. The phenomenon is known as the bystander effect or Genovese syndrome, where groups of people do not respond in desperate situations because they assume someone else will. And the truth is that cases like Yueyue's can be found all over the world. The CNN report mentions the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, the namesake of the psychological phenomenon, a woman from Queens, N.Y., who was stabbed to death while dozens of neighbors supposedly heard her cries (a claim later disputed) and did nothing to help.
But the bystander effect does not explain the brutality of Zhou Xijun, who took the life of an infant, while committing what started out as a nonviolent crime of opportunity. Because Zhou’s mental health has yet to be evaluated or reported on, it is difficult to say what his motives were for killing baby Haobo.
However, a report by NPR brought attention to a similar, recent incident that occurred in the Bronx, N.Y., and ended differently.
In early February, 8-month-old Ayanna was left in a car with her mother, Jennifer Rodriguez, while the child’s father, Patrick Julbe, 27, went into a nearby store. Ayanna’s mother briefly stepped out of the Jeep for what seemed like only a second to get a better look at what Julbe was showing her through the store window, when a carjacker hopped into the vehicle and drove away, with the sleeping baby.
According to the New York Post, once the carjacker realized he had inadvertently kidnapped the baby, he abandoned the vehicle, leaving the baby inside, alive, and called 911 from a payphone after leaving himself time to get away.
It is hard to make a comparison of the two isolated, albeit eerily similar, incidents. It can’t really be said that the American public has a better moral compass just because a carjacker in one case ditched the vehicle he stole and left the child alive.
But a similarity between China and America could be drawn instead in the case of an elderly woman in Nanjing, who was injured in 2006 by being jostled while waiting for a bus. Peng Yu, a fellow passenger, offered to help her and even brought her to the hospital. Later, the woman’s family took him to court, where he was eventually ordered to pay 40 percent of the medical costs, in a development reminiscent of reports from the U.S. of people refusing to help the injured for fear of being sued.
"Doing the right thing" in China may have become a risk that very few are willing to take, because money, gained through stolen vehicles or lost through being sued in court, has become the chief preoccupation. While some may not find this to be shocking in the world's leading capitalist nation, it is a new phenomenon in China, a country whose population was until recently very poor.
And in China, it’s the government itself that's worried now about what this could mean for a society it wants at all costs to be "harmonious" -- a word that has become synonymous, in the official language of the Communist Party, with an orderly (and presumably obedient) nation.
“There must be something wrong when it is considered risky to be a Good Samaritan,” read an editorial in China Daily, a government-run newspaper, after the death of Yueyue captivated worldwide audiences. “Apathy and distrust are the last things a harmonious society need. It is imperative that we find a way to protect Good Samaritans from being wronged.”