The laws that prompt motorists to kill injured accident victims

Society & Culture

On October 13, 2011, a vehicle knocked down two-year-old Wang Yue 王悦 on a narrow street in Foshan, Guangdong Province. As she lay on the ground underneath the van, the driver paused for a second, pulled forward, and ran over the little girl again.

This horrifying moment was captured by a surveillance camera. But what was perhaps more disturbing was the appalling level of indifference demonstrated by at least 18 passersby who walked or cycled past the girl’s body, unwilling to assist, until another car drove over Wang again. A scrap peddler eventually moved her to the side of the road and called for help.

The death of Wang Yue was one of the biggest news stories that year, igniting heated discussions on a national level about the line between traffic crimes caused by negligence and intentional homicide inflicted by a driver, and the moral responsibilities of a decent person when they see someone in urgent need of help.

Wang Yue wasn’t the first such case. China seems to have a history of drivers trying to kill pedestrians, often by running over them multiple times, after they make the first hit.

Back in 2006, an elderly woman in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province, got crushed five times by a driver who later claimed that he thought he was rolling over a trash bag. The same year, in Sichuan’s Dujiangyan, a three-year-old boy was killed by a Mercedes-Benz car, which drove over his body twice. The driver first defended his actions as attempts to get the boy out of the wheels, but after interrogation, he confessed to intentional murder.

Given cases of this kind, characterized as “hit-to-kill” by Geoffrey Sant in a 2015 piece he wrote for Slate, the tragedy of Wang should have come as a moment of awakening, but in the subsequent years, as the debate withered, stories like this continued to appear in news media.

In 2012, after a car collided with a women in Hengyang, Hunan Province, the driver hit her again to ensure her death. In April 2015, a two-year-old girl in Foshan was hit by a vehicle while it was crossing a crowded fruit market at high speed. As the girl’s grandmother beat the car’s hood while shouting at the driver, “Stop! You just hit a child!,” the car backed up a little and then moved forward to crush the girl again.

Why do they do this? Geoffrey Sant explains: “The hit-to-kill phenomenon stems at least in part from perverse laws on victim compensation. In China the compensation for killing a victim in a traffic accident is relatively small — amounts typically range from $30,000 to $50,000 — and once payment is made, the matter is over. By contrast, paying for lifetime care for a disabled survivor can run into the millions.”

If you’re in New York on Monday, February 26, join us for a live Sinica Podcast with Geoffrey Sant, a partner specializing in Chinese law at the firm of Dorsey & Whitney, and Benjamin Liebman, the Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law and the director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia Law School. The two will join Sinica hosts Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn to discuss how traffic law, injury, and liability illuminate the Chinese legal system.