A hit-and-run case in a southern Chinese city that saw two vehicles knock down a two-year-old girl, who was then left to die in the street while at least 18 passersby ignored her fate, has shocked China and stirred debate about a widely perceived decline in social morality.

The girl was run over – twice – by two goods van in Foshan, in southern Guangdong province, on October 13. Not only did the vans drive away without helping her, at least 18 passersby, who seemingly saw the girl lying hurt on the street, walked away without helping her.

It took 57-year-old Chen Xianmei, who makes a living recycling waste from Foshan’s streets, to help the girl to the side of the road and call for help.

Even as Chinese State media said on Wednesday morning that Yue Yue remained “close to brain dead” in a Foshan hospital, public outrage over her case this past week triggered donations of hundreds of thousands of yuan coming in to her family and her rescuer.

After a video of the accident hit China’s vibrant Internet, Yue Yue’s story spread like wildfire through social media networks, prompting hundreds of thousands of comments on microblogging sites like Sina Weibo, which is used by more than a hundred million Chinese netizens.

Many of the comments online expressed concern over the direction of Chinese society in the three decades since economic reforms, and an increasing focus on money and the material amid decaying social morality.

Many users even expressed nostalgia for the days of Mao Zedong, where China was “poorer” but had “more values.”

“October 13 should become a day of national shame for Chinese,” wrote one blogger.

“Today, [the 18 passersby] have shamed the whole of Foshan,” the Communist Party-run Foshan Daily said in a front-page headline.

According to the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, which monitors media trends in China, the “implications” of the incident were being “widely discussed in China’s media, both new and old.”

Even the usually nationalistic Global Times said in an editorial “selfishness is unscrupulously booming in China.”

The Foshan tragedy, the paper said, reflected “a type of apathy… that lingers in Chinese society” and “a moral decay that exists within the nation.”

The newspaper said self-interest had become “highly tolerated, even respected by some Chinese, and even seen as an ideological tool to break the traditional values of collectivism.”

The Guangzhou Daily, another official paper, quoted Fudan University sociologist Gu Xiaoming as saying that the sweeping changes facing Chinese society had brought about a loss in “reverence for life” and an “indifference or coldness” about life and death.

One of the passersby who did not help Yue Yue, the mother of a five-year-old girl, said she felt “regretful, compassionate, painful at heart and guilty.”

“I thought she had fallen down from playing and didn’t know she was run over by vehicles until her mother came in tears. She was bleeding from the mouth and nose and crying faintly. I was scared and my daughter was scared to cry. So we left in a hurry,” she told the Guangzhou Daily.

Amid the outrage and sadness about the case, there was some optimism that it would prompt welcome soul-searching and encourage greater social responsibility.

One company in Guangdong province said it pledged 500,000 yuan ($ 79,365) to Yue Yue’s, and would support a fund to reward people who help others, the official China Daily reported.

Another company said it donated 50,000 yuan ($ 7,936) to Yue Yue’s father, and offered Ms. Chen the same amount and a cleaning job.

Ms. Chen first refused the money, but then said she would share it with Yue Yue’s family.

“I didn’t do it for money,” she told the Southern Metropolitan News. “I didn’t earn the money. I will feel uneasy if I take it.”

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