Online Videos and Communities Confront Social Disorder in China

By Maya E. Rudolph

"Disorder" compiles numerous videos capturing social disharmony in China


In an age where surveillance videos serve as a kind of documentary and internet gossip supercedes mainstream news cycles, the idea of tragedy is spun into a new place and time.

Several weeks ago, a surveillance camera in Foshan’s Guangfo Hardware Market captured an incident wherein a small van ran over a two-year-old child left roaming alone in the market. The footage, now viewed by millions on youku and other video-sharing sites, has incited a national uproar and, for many Chinese, something of an identity crisis. The video not only graphically documents the gruesome hit and run, but the footage also reveals the apparent apathy of numerous passersby subsequently ignoring the injured child on the ground. After being hit, two-year-old Yue Yue lay as the passed-over object of little pause by eighteen workers, shoppers, a mother and child, and an additional truck that crushed her feet. Not until a trash-collecting ayi encountered the child was help sought and Yue Yue rushed to a local hospital, where her condition is unknown.

The video’s stark presentation of the hit and run and ensuing parade of indifference is shocking to behold and has now inspired outrage and questioning – of both social responsibility and of an existential, moral depth – on the part of Chinese netizens and beyond. On one hand, the hit and run has unleashed a debate on the ethical fabric of Chinese society, a kind of national “soul-searching” that begs at the emotional “numbing” of Chinese citizens. But the practical concerns of involving oneself in such a loaded situation have also surfaced in defense of the passersby. The threat of court corruption, false accusations, and complicated legal procedures may have deterred those who declined to help the child. In a recent article for The Guardian, Tania Branigan cites a netizen who admitted he’d not have offered assistance if given the opportunity, his pragmatism outweighing popular reactions of pathos and horror:

“Would you be willing to throw your entire family’s savings into the endless whirlpool of accident compensation? Aren’t you afraid of being put into jail as the perpetrator? Have you ever considered that your whole family could lose happiness only because you wanted to be a great soul?’” he wrote.

In the film Disorder, Huang Weikai’s 2009 digital documentary collage, the action splices in and out of crime and punishment, malaise and passion in contemporary Guangzhou. The documentary presents a pastiche of the ineffectual jostling the ineffable through scenes of highway mayhem, escaped pigs running amok, and the victim of a car accident who may or may not be “faking it.” “This is fraud, don’t sympathize with him,” cries the offending driver, stuffing reparations cash in the injured man’s pockets. Huang’s urban wilderness is one of automobiles, water, animals, and civil disobedience that may be neither civil nor truly disobedient, but all represent cycles – of traffic, of gossip, of corrupted nature, of spectacle – running their course. In one particularly prescient fragment, a crowd comes upon an infant abandoned on a roadside. This child is no Moses in the reeds, nor is the baby an object of scorn, but simply a curiosity or a problem without a particularly interesting solution. After a period of some passive speculation, the passersby leave the frame and the fate of the infant unknown while the action of the film barrels forward.

What Disorder‘s mode of representation shares with the now widely-discussed Foshan hit and run incident is a mode of documentation that occurs within a whirl of chaotic movement. But while Huang’s subjects remain immortalized without context or consequence, the hit and run has made waves in the most incendiary, but most fleeting pool of public judgment: online message boards.

Web-based gossip and discourse are nothing new in China, though the knee-jerk severity of the Foshan tragedy has unleashed a more prolific discussion than most. For the past several years, the Chinese internet has evolved as a kind of free-for-all public forum, with message boards boasting snarkily opinionated criticisms of strangers’ untoward behavior. The phenomenon of the renruosousuo, or “human flesh search engine,” wherein netizens pass judgment on issues as private as adultery or sexual fetishes, made headlines in 2007 when a group of enraged netizens physically attacked a couple accused of marital infidelities. The renruosousuo, a kind of online-based kangaroo court, mines the internet for instances of moral ambiguity and, enacting a previously unseen brand of merciless vigilante justice both on and offline, rebukes those offenders seen as immoral or representative of a corrupt society. While the renruosousuo phenomenon persists, despite criticisms that the accusing netizens should keep their noses – and blogs – out of strangers’ personal affairs, the discussion over the hit and run may represent a new moral debate. While calls for punishment of the truck driver and unmoved crowds have prevailed, the internet population has rarely exhibited such shock and awe, such thorough examination of what the incident says about morality in Chinese society, legal procedures, and human nature.

The intended meaning of Disorder‘s English title (The Chinese title Xianshi Shi Guoqu De Weilai, while ambiguous and thought-provoking in its own right, lacks the direct binary of the English title) has been widely discussed as referring to “disorder” meaning the absence of order, but also a “disorder” as a disease or ailment of some kind. In both interpretations, Huang’s title seems relevant in examining the hit and run tragedy and ensuing debate over a crisis in social responsibility and power. A mutilated child ignored by disaffected masses seems almost hyperbolic in its sensation – fodder as familiar to Eisenstein and Lang as might be exploited in a soap opera – but this melodrama is rendered uniquely odious in a news report. As in Huang’s vignette with the abandoned baby and the paralysis of decision surrounding another innocent life, the world’s abandonment of Yue Yue smacks sick with disorder. Here is a situation with no established code of legal or ethical decorum to follow, and implicated in another disorder, a sickly fear of interfering in the wrong business or simply getting mixed up in what is, for whatever reason, inexplicable.

The thesis of Huang’s film is a current, movement and migration of people and ideas and society. From the minutiae of film grains dancing across the print to the drive of automobiles and bodies through space, Huang’s conveyance creates something more powerful than a mere questioning of society – he shows us the way it is, broken apart, irregular, and in flux. To stop and focus on a particular incident in nearly impossible in the tide of Huang’s montage, much in the way the ebb and flow of news stories grab widespread attention and then fade away. The hit and run story is no doubt a topical tragedy, but the pace of society and internet gossip may likely see it soon eclipsed by a fresh news cycle. This moment of “soul-searching” for Chinese society has been a formidable one, but time persists as the real driving force here. As Huang’s montage shows us, even the most outrageous disaster, the most absurd calamity and outcry, will be pushed back by a new story, a new set of images, a new time for questions.

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