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If you saw a thief reaching into a young woman’s handbag at a crowded street crossing, what would you do? Mozer Rhian Oliveira, a Brazilian manager living in the southern Chinese factory boom town of Dongguan, didn’t hesitate. The 27-year-old hit the man with his umbrella. Two accomplices came to the thief’s aid, however, and chased Oliveira to the lobby of an office building where they beat him with the buckle end of their belts. The Brazilian suffered a bad head wound.

There were witnesses – lots of them, in fact. About 50 people stood by while the good Samaritan was beaten. When this easily cowed correspondent arrived on the scene a couple of days later, there were once again scores of people milling around – including well-built employees of the Peace Fitness gym, who said the security guards ought to deal with such situations.

At the barbershop just feet from the site of the attack, a barber said he had heard a commotion but the shop had been very busy. Then he whispered that the assailants were people from the border province of Xinjiang. People had been afraid to intervene because they were known to be such violent people, he said.

On the Chinese internet, the apathy of the bystanders prompted an outpouring of hysteria about the moral vacuum in China, blamed on prevailing consumerism.

Yet is that fair? I can attest that there are few countries where people are quicker to help a foreigner who speaks the national language poorly or more genuinely surprised to receive a tip. The problem is more likely the wish to steer clear of trouble of any kind, fostered by an overly stern state. China’s courts discourage people from helping strangers by arbitrarily punishing people who come to the aid of, say, an elderly person who falls off his bicycle. State media have also so effectively demonised the restive Muslim majority province of Xinjiang that the country’s Han Chinese majority appear to believe Xinjiang people have superhuman powers. I travelled with a Chinese friend and his partner in Kashgar a couple of years ago and he half expected the locals to riot when we were out on the streets.

But China’s propaganda machine is nothing if not agile; it swung into motion heralding Mr Oliveira as a hero. He was given a plaque as part of a campaign to encourage “good deeds”. Mr Oliveira really is a saint; he promptly donated to an orphanage the RMB100,000 ($15,800) he was given by a businessman.

Proletariat paradise

At a lunch last week in Hong Kong, attended by local manufacturers, the conversation turned to the southern Chinese factory boom town of Dongguan. The city is the worst, sighed a stylishly dressed garment manufacturer. He was complaining about the new pickiness of migrant labourers. A labour shortage in southern China had made them believe they were in, erm, a proletariat paradise. Many had not returned after the Lunar new year holidays. Ruing that Dongguan’s output growth had dropped to little over 1 per cent in the first quarter of this year, he said manufacturers were looking to invest elsewhere.

I find it hard to sympathise with rich Hong Kong factory owners who complain that China’s young people are spoiled for demanding double-digit pay rises and hot water in dormitories where most bunk six to a room. Yet perhaps the new realities of China’s labour market will spread investment to the rest of the developing world. The lunch at the Kowloon Tong Club also featured a presentation by the Hong Kong Chinese owner of a shoe factory in Addis Ababa, which he took over from the state for less than $3m.

He flipped from a photograph of the factory in 1965 to a shot in 2011, which looked much the same. The next slide said, without preamble: “Opening by the Emperor.” There stood Haile Selassie. It was hard to see what he was doing – cutting a ribbon or unveiling a plaque perhaps. A white executive hovered to his right while an Ethiopian executive grovelled on his left.

It’s hard to imagine as much fanfare for the new Hong Kong owner, but I propose trumpets across the capital to mark every move from China. The nascent shift in foreign direct investment from Dongguan to Addis Ababa is exciting. The trouble is, many of the businessmen at the lunch didn’t seem convinced. The shoe factory’s new owner had also told them about the creaky railways built more than 100 years ago and the inadequate roads. His anecdotes made them nostalgic for Dongguan.

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