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Does China also need to import compassion?
Hou Jie

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Whenever the Spring Festival comes around, the community I live in always has several business owners simultaneously start fundraising activities. They will either help children who have lost the chance to go to school in the countryside in China, or raise money for an orphanage of sick children or the impoverished western regions of China. I will participate as long as I have time. However, after a while, I keep having doubts about the integrity of these types of things. After going through the internal struggles of the Cultural Revolution, and through a communist education which instilled class struggles into people’s minds at a very young age, do we Chinese, or to be more exact, does this generation of Chinese still have compassion?

One of my friends said, “Of course.” He gave me two examples. One is that Chinese people provide help to AIDS patients. On China’s annual AIDS day, we can feel such compassion by reading those warm and comforting words from Chinese media. The other case was in 2002. Liu Haiyang from Qinghua University spread a caustic chemical on a bear. Public opinion was that this was bad behavior from Liu Haiyang. This supposedly affirmed that the Chinese public has compassion towards animals.

My friend even stated firmly that if people can express their compassion towards a high number of AIDS patients and if people can be compassionate towards animals, then, there is no reason to doubt that Chinese people will certainly have compassion towards their fellow human beings. However, from what I remember, at the very beginning, it seemed like we did not have much compassion towards those who had AIDS and to those animals. We even discriminated against those AIDS patients based on moral and social codes. It was around the time I was in college, when we began to hear the term AIDS. At that time, AIDS was only a far-fetched story, and a very scary one at that. But we could not feel its threat. AIDS even became the subject of jokes.

Yet, AIDS appeared in China almost overnight. AIDS was finally no longer a far-fetched story. Instead, it became a real thing that happened among Chinese people. I remember during the 1980’s, the most common term for cursing someone was saying you wished that person had AIDS. A well-known female singer from the previous generation once spread rumors saying that another well-known female singer, who was of the younger generation, had AIDS. It caused a phenomenon that almost had to be brought to the courts. If someone truly had AIDS, that person would suffer not only physically but also mentally. He would be driven out of people’s lives.

There was once a report about a doctor who came back from Africa. Since he was infected with AIDS, he was separated in the hospital and could not stay in the small town he lived in any more. Another case was with a peasant who was infected through a blood transfusion, and was viewed by others as taboo. No one wanted to associate with him. Nobody even dared to accept the money he handed over while he was buying vegetables. The only way for many AIDS patients to survive was to leave home, hide their identities, and stop associating with their friends ever again.

To tell the truth, at that time, the stories about AIDS patients were really very chilling ones. People’s attitude toward AIDS was stubborn. One such case is that of Doctor Gao Yaojie from Henan Province. She went to Shangcai County from Zhengzhou by paying out of her own pocket. Her purpose was to help those hundred or so AIDS patients in a village. Yet, once there, she didn’t get any compassionate assistance from anyone. On the contrary, she got discrimination and pressure from both the government and the local population.

Regarding Chinese people’s attitude toward animals, the number of uncompassionate scenarios would be too numerous to mention one by one. The movement of killing sparrows almost made this kind of bird go extinct. In China, there were also nation-wide movements to kill cats and dogs. During the mid-1990s, I lived in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province. The local people regarded having a dog as a pet to be part of a bourgeois lifestyle.

It was the end of the 1990s when people began to show their compassion towards AIDS patients and animals. That trend of dedication actually came to China from abroad.

From what I remember, the most effective one was an activity to help AIDS patients. Americans exhibited thousands of pairs of shoes—once worn by AIDS patients—on Capital Hill in Washington, D.C., to mourn AIDS deaths, and to appeal to the government and the public to pay attention to AIDS and the survivals of AIDS patients. Those thousands of pairs of shoes were displayed in the square on Capitol Hill, and made a very spectacular scene. It left a deep impression on me. The idea of compassion for AIDS patients was brought into China through the media. Meanwhile, the overseas protection of wild animals, for instance, the Animal Protection Association, was also introduced to China. The Chinese people began to have the thought of having compassion towards AIDS patients and animals.

By the end of the 1990s, in the small community I lived in you began to see more and more people strolling with dogs. Having dogs as pets was no longer considered a “bourgeoisie life style.” Instead, it became a sign of affection. On the contrary, people like me who do not have pets were often viewed as having no affection. In fact, I look at those activities of displaying care for AIDS patients and pets as following what’s “trendy,” or “following the crowd.” I am not convinced at all that that is real compassion. Providing help to those AIDS patients and protection to small fawns is merely an imported vogue that seems ideal and appealingly exotic.

If you still do not believe me, let’s take a look at the plight of those who have been infected with hepatitis B and hepatitis B virus carriers. It is said that the total number of hepatitis B and hepatitis B virus carriers in China is as high as 120 million. A well-known Chinese medical doctor once said, “Hepatitis B is a result of the three-year famine in the early 1960s.” I am a medical layman, so I won’t affirm or deny this claim. However, just looking at the numbers, China for sure has a high number of people with this disease. To a certain extent, we can probably say hepatitis B is a homegrown disease in China. Chinese people learned to express their compassion to AIDS patients and pets. Yet, since the United States does not have hepatitis B, the Chinese people are ignorant of the very idea of showing compassion towards hepatitis B patients. As a result, while the Chinese people are showing their great compassion to AIDS patients and pets, they are neglecting the hepatitis B patients in their own country.

In April 2003, Zhou Yichao, from Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, wanted to take a civil service examination. Because he was found to be HB-positive with hepatitis B virus carriers, he was not allowed to take the examination. Zhou Yichao got so angry that he took a knife and stabbed to death the government worker who was in charge of the exam and matriculation. This event drew people’s attention to hepatitis B patients. In fact, the hepatitis B virus carriers have become a special group in China. Because hepatitis B is contagious, patients have great trouble finding jobs, marrying, or associating with friends. What Zhou Yichao encountered was a discrimination policy that was actually put in place by the Chinese government. The compassion toward AIDS patients and pets by the Chinese government and the Chinese people does not extend to these hepatitis B patients. These 120 million people have become outcasts among China’s huge population.

From the hepatitis B patients, not only do we see Chinese people’s lack of compassion, we can even see collective apathy, discrimination and thoughtlessness. People do not realize that this group of people also needs to be treated with compassion.

The reason that Chinese people show their compassion toward AIDS patients and pets is because the Americans have compassionate organizations and certain cultural notions. The reason that Chinese people do not show their compassion toward hepatitis B patients is because the Americans do not have enough hepatitis B patients to show compassion towards. That is, there are barely any hepatitis B patients in the United States and the number of hepatitis B patients is so low that people can lose sight of the number.

So then, when will the people of China show their compassion towards hepatitis B patients? I guess we probably have to wait for a break out of the hepatitis B virus in the United States, at that time, Capitol Hill will have another shoe-exhibit. I imagine the Chinese government and the Chinese people might begin to chase the fashions again.

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