In this screen shot of a surveillance video, women reportedly ordered Zhang Lidong, right, to kill a woman at a McDonald's restaurant in  Shandong province. Photographer: Imaginechina via AP Images
In this screen shot of a surveillance video, women reportedly ordered Zhang Lidong, right, to kill a woman at a McDonald's restaurant in  Shandong province. Photographer: Imaginechina via AP Images

On Friday evening a cellphone camera captured the brutal murder of a woman at a McDonald’s in China’s Shandong Province. The footage is shaky, but the basic facts are not in dispute. The six Porsche-driving perpetrators were members of an apocalyptic cult; the murder itself was committed with an iron bar; and finally, and most disturbingly, the video clearly shows at least half a dozen witnesses to the act (including McDonald's employees), none of who intervene to save the victim.

It’s this last fact that has transformed the video and the crime into one of the most intensely discussed topics on Chinese social media in several years (at one point this weekend it occupied five of the top ten spots on Sina Weibo’s trending topic list), prompting a round of national recriminations and soul searching. “I can’t sleep tonight,” wrote Cui Yongyuan, a popular TV talk show host, to his Sina Weibo account at 4:35 a.m. Saturday. “Because I watched the video to see the killer and saw the bystanders and heard the woman’s screams. If I’d been there, would I have helped her? Probably not, because in life we never imagine that we’ll encounter such a situation.” He concludes, solemnly. “Tonight, this is the Chinese people’s collective shame.”

It was a common sentiment in the immediate aftermath of the crime, and it was not without precedent. For the better part of a century, Chinese intellectuals and citizens alike have worried over and decried China’s lack of good Samaritans, and the collective spirit that is supposed to inspire and protect them. Every Chinese knows the most recent, infamous examples, including an ugly video in which a toddler is run over by a truck in a recycling market, and ignored by passersby, as well as a well-known court case that had an elderly grandmother suing a young man for medical expenses after he helped her to a hospital.

What accounts for China’s lack of good Samaritans? Theories vary, and point to factors as variable as the lack of obligations to strangers under the Confucian value system, and the social dislocation and mistrust that’s inevitable in a rapidly urbanizing, formerly agrarian society. To be sure, there was very little social theorizing in the wake of the McDonald's murder. Instead there were recriminations and a sense that “something” had to be done. “As for the moral dimension of the problem,” wrote Qiao Zhifeng, for the state-owned Yangtze River Network. “We need to introduce incentives, including rewards for courage, and material awards, as well.”

Whether or not such policies will bring about a culture of good Samaritanism where none existed before is unlikely. Indeed, as discussion of the murder continues into the week, there’s been a decided shift in tone, away from the self-critical to the defensive. After all, accompanying a senior citizen to the hospital and jumping in front of a deranged cultist screaming “demon” as he beats someone with an iron bar are two very different kinds of good Samaritanism and -- in the opinion of an increasing number of online voices -- it’s crazy to expect everyone to do the latter. “Everyone has the right to cowardice and retreat,” wrote Yi Zhenxing, a well-known online video director, in a widely circulated tweet that he posted to Sina Weibo late Sundaymorning. “Not everyone is capable of being a hero. Conscientious people are commendable and their courage is worthy of admiration, but not every ordinary person need shoulder such obligations.” Then, in a turn of phrase uncharacteristic of a country that was theoretically founded on collective ideals (and prior to that, ruled by Confucian ideals), Li added: “We should love ourselves before loving others and ensure our own safety before helping others.”

By now the angry denunciation of bystanders who didn’t intervene in the murder has given way to snide mocking of “keyboard heroes” who denounce the injustice and perceived cowardice of others from behind a handle. On Sunday, the cartoonist Wang Liming posted an eight-panel comic to his Sina Weibo account that brings this cultural trope to life in the guise of “Keyboard Man,” a mild-mannered Clark Kent-type who by day studiously ignores social ills. By night, however, he transforms into a muscular superhero who spends his time berating others -- from the safety of his computer. It’s a cutting commentary, yet one that’s unlikely to make any difference to a Chinese society in need of an occasional hero.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net