THE fate of a toddler left comatose after being knocked down by a van in a market – with her mangled body run over by a second vehicle and ignored by 18 passers-by – has prompted an outpouring of soul-searching and self-revulsion across China.

Yueyue, two, was 100m from her family home in Foshan, south China, when she wandered into the path of a van on Thursday last week.

The child might have been saved if a seven-minute procession of cyclists and pedestrians had not looked the other way.

The callousness of the drivers and those who walked on has been taken by Chinese as evidence that the country is losing its soul.

One netizen commented on what he called an ethical decline that starts with corrupt officials and ends with a “zombie” population stripped of its humanity.

“Find those 18 passers-by, dissect their brains and see what medicine the Communist Party has been feeding us to make them like the walking dead,” wrote one widely forwarded post on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

Even after Yueyue was carried off the street and put against some sacks, the unwillingness of people to become involved was all too obvious.

The 57-year-old rag collector who finally moved her ran from shop to shop to find the toddler’s parents and was repeatedly told to mind her own business.

After doctors declared the child brain dead, her parents received a phone call from one of the drivers saying: “If you had hit her, you would run too.”

A man who identified himself as the same driver told local media: “If she’s dead, I may pay only about 20,000 yuan ($3200, but if she’s injured it may cost me hundreds of thousands of yuan.”

Both drivers have since been arrested.

As details of the tragedy emerged, surveillance camera footage provided harrowing images of cyclists, shoppers and even a mother and child ignoring the bleeding toddler as they walked by.

The video allowed Chinese to count and condemn the people who saw Yueyue but did nothing to help her.

China’s largest microblogging site, Sina Weibo, rapidly became an arena for fury and accusation.

“This is not about 18 individuals reflecting on their hateful indifference, but a matter of shame for everyone. We are a kind people. When did we start hiding that?” said one.

“Humans beget humans, devils beget devils. China gave birth to this f***ing society,” wrote another.

Many bloggers highlighted what they saw as contrasting Chinese and foreign responses to an endangered life, citing an incident last week when an American tourist jumped into a lake in the southeastern city of Hangzhou to rescue a Chinese woman from drowning.

The focus has shifted from the callousness of the passers-by to practical pressures that kept them from trying to help.

Many remember a case in 2006 when a 65-year-old woman fell in the street and broke her hip.

Peng Yu, 26, rushed to help, took her to hospital and gave her 200 yuan for good measure.

She later sued him, winning an award of 45,000 yuan because the judge decided that Mr Peng’s gift was evidence that he had caused her fall.

Since then the fear of litigation has increased.

In June, last year, a man helped an elderly woman only to be sued for 100,000 yuan.

By September the Ministry of Health advised the public not to rush to lend a hand to the elderly if they fall. The results of that advice are already evident.

Last month in central Wuhan, an 88-year-old man collapsed in the street and was left to die because no one dared to help.

The Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, subsequently conducted a poll that found that 80 per cent of people would not help an elderly person in the street for fear of extortion.

Many microbloggers yesterday wondered if they would have behaved differently.

Others, echoing similar comments after a high-speed railway collision in July, blamed the country’s breakneck pursuit of profit for the death of “the good and the beautiful”.

One, on a tack that resulted in censors deleting some microblogs on the Sina Weibo website, blamed a government that had “broken the moral standards of the Chinese nation down to a level where the people are screaming”.

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