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POSTPONED -- Vilifying Virtue: The Good Samaritan's New Trouble in China and Its Moral Implications


Thursday, April 17, 2008
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
11377 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095



Modernization often involves changes in social norms, values, and beliefs, leading to a certain degree of moral crisis. Modernization in China is by no means an exception. However, the crisis in China also stems from several unique factors, including the state-sponsored attack on traditional values and ethics, the quick rise and fall of socialist morality (and the consequences that entails), the lack of civic virtues in the public sphere, and the continuing tight control of the public sphere by a strong state. All these have weakened local/indigenous values and ethics and made them vulnerable to a sweeping global consumerism and its associated ethics of possessive individualism. As a result, traditional Chinese virtues are, so to speak, out of date and powerless. Yet, a new system of civic virtues cannot grow out of a society with little freedom in the public sphere and one where the ethics and norms of being a decent person have yet to be negotiated and the current structural arrangements of society do not reward individuals who pursue a virtuous life. This is so much so that being a person of virtue leaves one open to the charge of being a villain, as shown in cases in which good Samaritans were blackmailed by the very people they had helped.

Based on both ethnographic evidence and media reports, this paper first examines the main features of the blackmail of Good Samaritans, known in Chinese as zuo haoshi bei e. It calls attention to the phenomenon that extortionists tend to be senior citizens and/or injured women, the most common recipients of social compassion and, one might think, the least people to attack sympathy and kindness. The second section of the paper analyzes the factors that, by working together, might contribute to the rise of this immoral behavior of blackmailing one’s benefactors. Among others, the paper particularly points to the incompetence of law enforcement officers dealing with cases of zuo haoshi bei e and with a loophole in Chinese law. The third section argues that the Good Samaritan’s new trouble may indicate the emergence of a moral crisis in contemporary Chinese society because it violates the basic cultural principle of bao (the principle of reciprocity) and destroys the foundation of social trust and empathy.


310 825-8683

Sponsor(s): Center for Chinese Studies

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