Tsinghua professor chastises the public’s indifference towards human life

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Three weeks ago, a man surnamed Zhang was mauled to death by tigers in Ningbo Zoo after scaling a wall to avoid paying the zoo’s entrance fee. Police shot and killed one of the tigers during the rescue operations, but Zhang was unfortunately beyond help by the time they could reach him. On Chinese websites and social media many people argued that the tiger should not have been shot because it was just doing what was natural to it, and that it was the man’s fault for climbing over the wall in the first place. Last week, Professor Sun Liping of Tsinghua University’s Sociology Department wrote a long post on Weibo in response to the public reactions over the incident. Below is CDB’s summarized translation of the Professor’s post.

Let me clarify by saying that this article does not touch on rules or blame, but rather it sheds light on the “apparent” indifference to human life that can be seen in peoples’ reactions to the Ningbo Zoo incident.

In the aftermath of the incident, there have been two main reactions. One comes from those who say: “He broke the rules and got killed. He got what he deserved.” The other is from people who believe that the above reaction is equivalent to being indifferent towards human life. I of course support the latter, but that is unimportant because it will not influence my discussion of this problem.

What is this “apparent” indifference in the end? And why did I add “apparent” in front of it?  Because I do not believe that this indifference is a result of humanity’s intrinsic nature. Let’s suppose that those who say “deservedly” were actually at the scene. Most people watched the event unfold in horror, all the while feeling worried for Zhang, hoping he would be able to escape unscathed. No one was watching the scene unfold while saying: “mauled to death, so what? No one forced him to sneak in without a ticket.” In this light, I believe this is an “apparent” indifference.

In discussions of the incident, those that use the word “deservedly” are ridiculing a man who paid the price of his life, which shows an indifference to human life. Despite this, they claim they are only upholding the rules. Many people say there is a contradiction here. Those denouncing Zhang can’t actually believe that people who break the rules should pay the price of their life, but at the same time they truly use the word “deservedly”. Why does some people’s train of thoughts present this contradiction? Because two trains of thought can coexist within us. One is empathy towards human life, and the other is a rigid idea fostered by society that any punishment cannot make up for a wrongdoing.

If today we say a man who breaks the rules is “deservedly” killed by a tiger, then tomorrow we might say a reactionary “deservedly” dies because he opposed society. If so, then the next day we may even say that our boss “deservedly” dies because he is rich and heartless. During the Cultural Revolution, we saw this happen with slogans like “death cannot wipe out your crimes” and “your crime deserves ten thousand deaths.” People will question the relevance of this, but I have to point out that the origins of these two trains of thought are the same.

Eliminating evil tendencies and recovering humanity are two of the largest issues society currently faces. Perhaps I am making too much of a fuss out of this, but I believe that if we take a look at the factors involved in peoples’ reactions towards this incident, we may notice an overarching deterioration of society.