The death of toddler Wang Yue has continued the soul-searching in China and beyond that began after the online video of her being hit by a van went viral.

After the van hit Yue in a hardware market in Foshan on Oct. 13, the driver stopped and then ran over her. But what really got people's attention was that for several minutes, 18 people shown in the video did not help the two-year-old. Tens of millions of comments have been made on Chinese websites like Sina Weibo, a Twitter/Facebook equivalent.

One reason that's offered for such apparent indifference by the witnesses is the legal system in China. There is no obligation to be a Good Samaritan, says Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University and an expert on Chinese law.

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There is no obligation under the Chinese legal system to be a Good Samaritan, says Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University and an expert on Chinese law. (Ka F. Chan/New York University)

"There's no requirement, in other words, that if you see someone in an urgent emergency situation that you respond affirmatively to help," he said in an interview. "You can remain passive without being prosecuted."

However, Cohen notes, "in practice, which is what really counts in China, there have been incidents where the person who did help actually suffered as a result of it."

Not a new controversy

Last month, while writing about another case of apparent neglect of someone injured, Liu Shinan, the assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily, blamed the legal system for what had happened.

In that case, an 88-year-old man who had fallen near his home in Wuhan died, apparently because for 90 minutes, no passersby came to his aid as he lay face down. "Should anybody have turned him over or on his side, he might have survived," Liu wrote.

'It is the result of the many cases in the past when the helper has been accused by the beneficiary, or the beneficiary's family, of being responsible for the accident.'—Liu Shinan

There was also a huge number of online comments about that death. Writing about the first 30,000 comments, which came within 12 hours, on sina.com, Liu writes that "almost all of them said they understood why the onlookers did not move to help the man and many admitted that they would have done the same if they were there."

He added: "Everybody in China knows why. It is the result of the many cases in the past when the helper has been accused by the beneficiary, or the beneficiary's family, of being responsible for the accident."

The Pengu Yu effect

The best-known case is that of Pengu Yu. In 2006 in Nanjing, he helped an elderly woman who had fallen. She later accused him of causing her fall.

A judge ruled in her favour, without any supporting evidence, saying that he would not have helped her unless he caused her fall.

The bystander effect

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Surveillance video shows a pedestrian approaching Hugo Tale-Yax, lower right, lying on the ground after he was stabbed following his effort to help a woman being attacked in the Queens borough of New York on April 18, 2010. (ABC/Associated Press)

After the video showing Chinese toddler Wang Yue went viral in October 2011, people tried to understand how 18 people could have passed the injured girl without helping.

A woman who walked by while holding her own daughter's hand said: "If someone was helping at that time, I would have done the same."

Psychologists who study human behavior in similarly tragic situations would find nothing extraordinary in that remark.

It is not unusual in a crowded place because people are waiting for someone else to do something. It's what psychologists call the bystander effect (Continued).

Evan Osnos, a writer for The New Yorker magazine who's based in China, cited the "Peng Yu effect" when he wrote about Yue.

"When the People's Daily conducted an online poll on whether people would help a senior citizen who had fallen in the street, more than 80 per cent of those tallied said that they would not help out of fear they would be blamed and saddled with damages."

Cohen also pointed to the case in his interview with CBC. "It makes people understandably reluctant to want to intervene in situations where, from a human point of view, a moral point of view, you have no option but to intervene."

Liu says he thinks there are two reasons people have that attitude. 

"First, they fear they will fall into the hands of a 'muddle-headed judge' [a well-known reference in China to judges in ancient China] like the one in the Peng Yu case should they also be framed by the person they help. Second, those who frame their helpers are never punished."

Liu points to another case, in August in Jiangsu province, in which a bus driver helped a woman he saw lying on the ground. She later accused him of hitting her tricycle with his bus. However, evidence from the bus's video camera showed the woman was lying, according to Liu.

Cases like these lead Cohen to argue that a legal system "should try to support the proper, human, moral choice." He adds that "they certainly shouldn't punish somebody who has voluntarily tried to help someone."

Why they did what they did

While the online commenters in China have cited these cases and others while discussing what happened to Yue, this time it involved a child.

Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick reported on some of the two million online condolence messages in China for the girl, who has become affectionately known as Yue Yue. 

'Is it really so difficult to be a good person?'—Chen Xianmei's daughter-in-law

"Your life woke up this ignorant society. Thanks to little Yue Yue for letting us stop our fast-paced steps so we can wait for our soul," writes Sun Laolin, as quoted by Demick.

In Yue's case, it was a female scrap collector, Chen Xianmei, who finally came to the little girl's aid. Many commenters in China accused her of doing so to get money or seek publicity.

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Qu, left, the mother Wang Yue, speaks to Chen Xianmei, a scrap collector who helped the girl after she was struck by two vans and left for dead, during a visit to the hospital in Guangzhou in south China's Guangdong province, Oct. 18. ((Associated Press))

"Is it really so difficult to be a good person?" Chen's daughter-in-law asked in China Daily.

Some of the passersby who ignored Yue say they did not see her as they walked by but the mother of a five-year-old girl explained her actions. In the video, the girl seems to try to pull her mother toward Yue, but the mother pulls her away.

"I was scared and my daughter was scared to cry. So we left in a hurry," the woman, surnamed Lin, told the Guangzhou Daily. She said she felt "regretful, compassionate, painful at heart and guilty" for not helping Yue.

The driver's explanation

A recording that is reported to be a phone call of one of the drivers to a journalist is widespread online. "If she is dead, I may pay only about 20,000 yuan [$3,154]

. But if she is injured, it may cost me hundreds of thousands of yuan."

Cohen says that  "sometimes, the Chinese take a very practical analysis as their guide."

The driver's statement recalls another recent case in China, nearly exactly a year ago, that also caused public outrage. Music student Yao Jiaxin unintentionally hit a woman on a bicycle, Zhang Miao, in Xian.

Zhang was slightly injured but the story goes that when Yao thought she was remembering his licence plate number, he stabbed her eight times, killing Zhang. Yao said that he feared that Zhang, a poor cafeteria worker, would be "hard to deal with" over compensation for her injuries.

Yao initially denied the murder but later turned himself in. He was executed in June.

Chinese commenters about Yue have noted several incidents in China in which it was foreigners who came to the aid of Chinese in distress.

Meanwhile, state media have featured a story from another neighborhood in Foshan where on Wednesday, shopkeepers rushed to help a boy hit by a car.