The Unbearable Coldness of Being (Chinese)


“If Everything is Cold.” The usually witty Cai Fanghua, a columnist for the Beijing Youth Daily, titled his recent WeChat post with apparent solemnity. The subject was the near-death experience of a fellow journalist, whose traumatic ordeal had stunned and incensed the public for the past two weeks. Oddly, the case has nothing to do with journalism or news reporting, but the protagonist’s profession did help make it a national front page story.

On Nov 9, Mr. Zhang Yang, a TV journalist from Liaoning province was on board China Southern Airline’s flight CZ6101 on a reporting mission to Beijing. Before boarding he ate a light lunch. Barely after the flight took off he felt an acute pain in his abdomen which, in a few minutes, rendered him immobile. He had to half squat on the ground, sweating profusely. He knew something had gone badly wrong with his body. Attended by the stewardess, he was assured that an ambulance was already waiting in Beijing.

When the plane touched down on the icy runway of Beijing Capital Airport, it turned out his nightmare had just begun. With the ambulance visible outside the window, the gate of the plane just did not open. This poor guy had to wait another FIFTY minutes before the crew sorted out a supposed brake malfunction and opened what later became the gate of hell (or at least purgatory)for this reporter.

Neither the crew members nor the ambulance staff were willing to carry this suffering man down the flight. Both considered it the responsibility of the other side. The emergency service staff did not even carry a stretcher. So right in front of this patient, the two sides engaged in a nasty fight that involved abusive language of all sorts. Everybody was so self-involved that no one paid a tiny bit of attention to the guy, who,by this point, was literally howling with pain on the ground. He feared that he was to die on the plane. Mustering what remained of his strength, he shouted to the fighting crowd, “I’ll carry myself!” and started crawling down the steep stairs. Nobody offered him a hand. Upon reaching the ambulance, the driver kindly asked him if he could climb onto it by himself, as the lifting device was “too cumbersome to handle”. With bitter resignation, he obliged.

It’s not over. Ambulance staff would only send him to the airport-affiliated hospital, not a place known for its medical prowess. After running all sorts of examinations on him, doctors at the airport hospital realized that his conditions were critical enough that he needed to be immediately transfered to a major hospital. So they hailed a 999 emergency service ambulance, which was once again an ill-fated turn of event in this reporter’s eyeball-dropping journey of death.

The staff on the 999 ambulance, telling the reporter that both recommended hospitals were full (a lie probably), insisted on taking him to 999’s self-owned emergency center on the far north side of the city, bypassing all nearby hospitals that could have taken him in right on spot. Upon arrival, hours had passed since the plane landed in Beijing. Zhang was almost unconscious, head swollen and belly about to explode, while doctors at the center were clueless about how to treat him. With his lingering consciousness, Zhang asked someone at his side to make a phone call to his doctor friend in Beijing, who forced the immediate transfer of him to one of the city’s best hospitals.

At long last, Zhang received a life-saving surgery eight hours after he first saw an ambulance through the window of his flight. Intraperitoneal hernia had blown up his small intestine like a balloon. He was that close to death. Surgeons cut off 80 centimeters of his clogged intestine to save his life. Days after he barely stared down death itself, he posted his experience on Weibo.

Every once in a while the Chinese society would be stung by its own indifference to the suffering of fellow countrymen. In 2011, eighteen passers-by turned a blind eye to a dying toddler lying in the middle of the street hemorrhaging after being ran over by a van. When the video, captured by a closed circuit camera, emerged on the Internet, it became a global spectacle. The Daily Telegraph in the UK described it as “a story that has deeply unsettled millions in China, posing troubling questions about whether three decades of headlong economic development has left nothing but a moral vacuum in its wake.” Half a year later, the incident was still part of the broader conversation about China: when the young writer Han Han, then still active in social debates, did an interview with the Financial Times, he brought up the girl as a sign of “the Chinese society’s cold selfishness.”

At least part of that harsh collective self-assessment is the relic of an intellectual tradition dating back to the early 20th century. In a rush to make sense of the humiliating defeat of China in front of the major powers, militarily, politically and culturally, Chinese intellectual elites plunged themselves into an obsession with the so-called “national character” (guomingxing) . Being “cold” and “indifferent” was considered a big part of that national character, nailed into the consciousness of every Chinese by Lu Xun’s classic image of a group of by-standers cheering the execution of a fellow Chinese by the Japanese.

Whereas post-colonialist scholars have later seriously challenged the idea of a (flawed) “national character” as a myth constructed by the likes of Lu Xun under the influence of a dominant colonialist narrative of the time, the tendency to self-generalize still lingers on, particularly in popular accounts about events such as the above mentioned toddler.

But there are indications that discussions about the country’s moral status are gradually evolving into a different kind of self-examination. One such indication is the effort to debunk the myth of Chinese coldness by demonstrating, in a non-scholarly fashion, that it is nothing more than a product of poorly verified media accounts. Wang Zhi’an, a quite unorthodox CCTV investigative journalist with a propensity to bust what he sees as populist sentiments, has done some work to expose that a few well-known cases of so-called Good Samaritans being extorted by those they help, a major source of the “coldness” impression, are misrepresented by the media: The “Good Samaritans”, such as the famous Peng Yu, are actually responsible for the injury of the victims.

Another strand of the discussion, somewhat related to the above Good Samaritan issue, is to unearth the social and institutional set-up that prohibits well-intentioned individuals from extending their helping hands. A subset of the debates surrounding Zhang Yang mistreatment at the flight’s exit was on this topic. Some highlights the risks associated with handling patients in critical conditions, citing previous incidents where airline staff got complained or sued by patients. Industry experts liken it to the moral dilemma of helping fallen old people on the street, the lack of liability shields often discourages passers-by from helping.

What ultimately makes this “airport-gate” unique is that it does not stop at a mere “hard look” at the ugly side of the Chinese society. Its transformation into a genuine opportunity for social improvement sets it apart from so many similar cases that only result in increased cynicism. A large part of it should be attributed to our protagonist, Zhang Yang, who vowed to make himself “the last one to suffer from such inhumane treatment,” and has since then turned himself into a formidable campaigner who is particularly savvy in navigating the treacherous Chinese cyberspace, which eats and defecates public figures on a daily bases. He shrewdly dodges common pitfalls that had obliterated many a predecessors of his: he turned down compensation offers from both China Southern Airline and the airport hospital, neutralizing any accusation that he is doing this for economic gains; His writing, albeit poignant and pointed, was restraint in its allegations; He was sympathetic toward those individuals who made him suffer, who he saw as victims of the system too. He made it explicit that in order to push for systematic change on the problems exposed by this incident, he would take pains to keep himself “uncorruptible”. This includes refraining from taking any advantage of his journalist identity, even barring his own media organization, the largest TV station in Liaoning province, from reporting his story. His determination, and a peculiar ability to steer public opinion without getting bruised in the process, seems to have come to fruition. So far he has secured repeated public apologies from China Southern Airline and the airport hospital. His adamant yet reasonable manner left such a strong impression on his adversaries that it became part of the official record in China Southern Airline’s internal communication about the encounter:”Mr. Zhang is a polite, reasonable and tolerant person. He understands how to defend his rights in a rational, fair and legal way. He makes no absolute claims.” The airline promised to conduct a comprehensive review of its practices in relation to medical emergencies, including proper authorization for its front-line staff to give necessary, humanitarian assistance.

There is no sign that Zhang Yang, who is barely recovering from his surgery, is to halt his one-man campaign which is quickly becoming one of the most consequential events of China in 2015. His experience touched tens of thousands of onlookers who fear that one day their own lives would be hung in the balance in the same way. His integrity as a person, reflected by those bold and eloquent Weibo posts written with a distinct style of self-mockery and empathy, adds to his resonance as a voice that calls for progressive improvement of a system crucial to potentially every Chinese. After shedding light on loopholes in the airport emergency system, he has now thrown the full weight of his attention, along with that of the whole society, on the 999 emergency service, which arguably played the most detrimental role in his tortuous journey on Nov 9. Unlike China Southern Airline and the airport hospital, 999 took a hard line against Zhang’s questioning, accusing him of “disturbing social stability”. It also arranged its own “expert” to speak on CCTV News claiming that everything was done according to procedure, a move that drew wide ridicule on the Internet. After posting a scathing piece about the 999 emergency service, a subsidiary of the half-governmental Beijing Red Cross Society, Zhang filed formal complaints to the Red Cross and the Beijing health department. He has now hired a lawyer and is preparing to sue.

A story about “coldness” has led to a potential revamp of China’s emergency services. In what was supposed to be a poster-boy case of indifference and negligence, Zhang Yang’s quiet determination has created space for the expression of warmth. Anonymous Weibo users from inside the aviation industry sent him personal apologies for what they saw as a chronic problem with China’s airport medical emergency support. In a show of great empathy, they “felt ashamed of” what their unrelated colleagues have done to Zhang and asked for his forgiveness. Finally, some part of the Chinese society is responding to the coldness of their countrymen with grace and decency.