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As the new year begins in the west, the old year is ending in China, with the usual filial migration of a few hundred million souls, to spend Lunar New Year with family.

But this year will be subtly different: as the hordes move through Shanghai’s subway and railway stations, more and more will be standing on the right side of escalators, giving up their seats to pregnant ladies and helping travellers buy underground tickets. These are the fruits of the Shanghai government’s “civilisation” campaign – an effort to harness the naked greed that has powered 30 years of Chinese capitalism, to build a kinder, gentler China.

With 23m people, most of them frantically looking for a chance to make a quick renminbi, Shanghai is hardly famous for civic feeling. City residents treat car accidents as a form of street theatre: they rubberneck, but they do not help. Noticeably more people surrender bus seats to the elderly and hew to the right on escalators these days – but there are few signs of an epidemic of altruism just yet.

So Shanghai recently launched a “good deeds” prize – a discount on utility bills for those who distinguish themselves by engaging in volunteer activities. In Zhejiang province, one city gives residents points in their “good behaviour account” for doing things such as helping a neighbour repair his television; they can redeem them for free elderly care.

Some cities are even trying to legislate fellow feeling: the southern city of Shenzhen is drafting the country’s first good Samaritan law, shocked into action by the horrific death of a toddler, who was ignored by passers-by as she lay mortally injured in a south China gutter after being struck by two vehicles.

That incident, watched by millions on YouTube-style websites, provoked a crisis of conscience throughout China, where it rapidly came to be seen as one of the seminal events of 2011 – alongside the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash and the approval of the 12th five-year plan.

Every society has its bad Samaritans. Around the time that the toddler died, an elderly American died in a West Virginia Target store while fellow shoppers went on with their Black Friday frenzy. But at least they called 911.

By contrast, the driver who ran over the Chinese toddler – first with his front wheels, and then after pausing to consider the situation, with his back wheels – horrified the nation by suggesting that he had done so to save money. “If she is dead, I may pay only about Rmb20,000, but if she is injured it may cost me hundreds of thousands of yuan,” he told a TV station.

And after the driver made that calculation, no less than 18 people walked or drove past the dying toddler without lifting a finger to help – or even call the emergency services.

The reason given for this epidemic of public blindness? The case of a young Samaritan held liable by a Chinese court for helping a woman who fell from a bus. The judge said it was “common sense” that he would only help her if he had injured her in the first place – raising the risk of liability for anyone who helped the toddler, too. It will take a lot of discounted electricity bills to make up for that ruling.

Film fakery

After a year replete with such cases of public callousness – like the 88-year-old man who suffocated in his own blood on a crowded street in central China – the Chinese media were delighted to publicise a case of the kindness of strangers: the story of how passers-by banded together to help a pregnant woman who fainted in a Shanghai park.

Unfortunately, the stunt was faked by a Shanghai film production company, which defended it for its propaganda value. Presumably, those involved got a demerit in their good behaviour account.

Chinese altruism

All in all, it was a bad year for altruism in China. Some blamed Confucius – because he stresses duty to family over debt to strangers – and others blamed Communism. China even won a prize for its hardheartedness: the mainland ranked next to last in a recent OECD poll of 40 countries’ “pro-social” behaviour. But at least it beat Greece, the birthplace of democracy – doubtless reinforcing the Chinese government’s view that politics is not the answer. Rather let them eat electricity credits.

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