From Sean Haines [ChinaDaily]

It was about 9pm, three years ago, and the Beijing bus was practically empty — maybe six passengers.

Nearby, a married couple in their thirties were talking loudly with a single woman. “Banter between friends,” I assumed.

That was until the wife got up and spat on the woman.

She followed this by standing over her, yelling loudly. Behind her, her husband stood and shouted too, pointing his finger.

The single woman got up, moved to the doors and quietly said something back to the couple.

That lit the fuse. The wife ran over and began to hit the woman. And so did her husband. Both slapping her head and back, as the woman protected herself.

Like many buses, there was a security guard on board. However, in this case he was little help, and the young, very young, kid shrunk into his already over-big uniform.

After what felt like an age, the bus stopped, doors opened, and the single woman departed into the night.

By the time I got home, I was still in shock. So much of what happened had disturbed me. The spitting. A man hitting a woman. How long the fight continued for. How little other people cared.

But the biggest thing that disturbed me: the fact that I was useless.

This is unusual for me. I’ve always been a helper. I was raised to keep an eye out for others.

Once, walking home, I saw an elderly woman struggling with her shopping, so I carried it for her — a mile in the wrong direction.

Around 2006, a friend and I were getting off the London Underground. Ahead, at the top of the escalator, a Middle-Eastern woman in a full burqa dropped her suitcase. It began to clatter down the stairs. The crowd at the bottom gasped and moved back.

I ran forward. Picked it up, and carried it back up to her.

“You realize why the crowd gasped, right?” my friend asked, after catching up. “Bomb.” The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Another time on a bus in England, two high school students were teasing a younger boy. One pushed him, said they were going to follow him home.

“RIGHT!” I shouted. And before I knew it, I was holding them back, and shouting in their faces about how they were “scallywags”, and “tykes” and “whippersnappers”. Not the most intimidating language, but I was improvising.

The driver let the young boy off, and I asked him to take the other two “rapscallions” to at least the next stop.

That’s normally how I react, but here, in China, I froze.

I have no idea who the woman was, or what she may have done. But in that moment, she was being bullied, humiliated, and I didn’t help.

“I’m glad you didn’t,” my friend replied after hearing the story.

“You have no idea what they were saying. They could easily have turned on you.”

She then introduced me to a long list of Chinese idioms like “Mind the snow in your own yard!” (Ge ren zi sao men qian xue, mo guan ta ren wa shang shuang!) Or “Eat less salted fish, and you will suffer less thirst!” (Shao chi xian yu shao kou gan!) Or the nice and direct “Don’t stick your head out if it’s not your business!” (Shi bu gan ji mo chu tou!).

To illustrate what could go wrong, she showed me stories where old women lay in the street, waiting for aid, only to blackmail their helpers later. “You pushed me!” they claim.

My head spun. Don’t even help old ladies?

Luckily, this isn’t the China I see. Day to day, the country is easily one of the safest places I have ever lived. And the few times I have been in trouble — whether is lost, nosebleed, broken bike — strangers have been quick to help.

Also, things are changing. In October 2017, a Good Samaritan law went into effect in China. It means people who voluntarily help those they believe to be injured, ill, or in danger, won’t be held responsible if something goes wrong.

The idea is to lift cynicism: empower people to help others. Which is how it should be.

Is it right to always intervene? I don’t know. But three years on, if the same incident happened again, I might react differently.