There has been a storm of accusations online in China since the death earlier this month of 23 year-old policeman Zhang Ninghai (张宁海), who fell from a cliff in the rugged Huangshan Mountains while escorting 18 young hikers from Shanghai’s Fudan University to safety. The students had apparently gone off climbing on their own, without purchasing tickets for entry to the popular tourist park, and they were ill-prepared. But much of the anger vented online in the wake of this tragedy has been misplaced, and blame has been heaped unnecessarily on the students.
Many have denounced the students for putting themselves in harm’s way and bringing about the young policeman’s sacrifice as a result. Others have accused them of cold insensitivity, saying for example that they have shown insufficient respect for officer Zhang Ninghai.
This last accusation has no basis in fact, and the remorse felt by the students has been demonstrated quite clearly. As for their having gone off without purchasing tickets, the management authorities in Huangshan have something to answer for on this account. The natural scenery of Huangshan does not belong to the local authorities. What makes them think they can cordon off a resource that belongs to all of us and then charge us a premium to enjoy it? If I were a student in the same position, I think I might have done exactly what these students did, finding a way to enter the park without a ticket.
The real error these students made was to not make adequate preparations for the risks they were taking on. Having chosen to put themselves in a relatively dangerous situation, they should done more to prepare properly. They should have known what the weather conditions might be, and taken the necessary equipment and precautions, minimizing risk.
Yes, of course the tragic death of Zhang Ninghai was related to their risk-taking. But do they really deserve such a surge of criticism and ridicule? We should applaud the officer’s spirit of personal sacrifice, but linking this sacrifice directly to the actions and choices of the students is entirely unnecessary. As a police officer serving in the Huangshan region, it was Zhang Ninghai’s duty to answer the call and rush to the rescue, a duty that comes with definite risks.
There are plenty of people in the world who take risks, plenty who find themselves in need of rescue, and plenty who put themselves in harm’s way to help others. But is it right to slur the risk takers because their actions led others to sacrifice themselves?
We may eulogize those who put their lives on the line for the sake of others. But that doesn’t mean, by extension, that we have to cast those they saved as arch-criminals who engineered their untimely deaths. That sort of thinking seems to imply that their sacrifices were pointless to begin with.
We’ve all been young before. Our recklessness and risk-taking agitated our parents to no end and brought reprimand from our teachers, but all of us now look back on those days with a certain pride. What could we possibly accomplish if we never dared to take risks, if we were completely drained of that adventurous spirit of youth?
Speaking as a university educator, I believe one thing we sorely need today is to encourage young people to go and take risks, and to test their limits. If we coddle the next generation, like soft chicks who must make no missteps, they may still grow up with some level of ability, but they will grow callow and conventional.
There is room to criticize the Fudan University students for their poor decisions. But there is no need to go overboard in assigning blame. Many others have acted just as they did. I did the same sorts of things when I was in school, and I consider myself richer for them. So I hope the university authorities are wise enough to deal with these students leniently.
In fact, one aspect of this whole affair that is most deserving of censure is the wave of pro-censorship jargon that appeared on Fudan University’s internal online bulletin-board site (BBS) in the wake of the tragedy — posts about the need to conscientiously control the news media on the story, to properly spin this public relations crisis. There was even a thread about how news reporters for the university needed to “hold their media position” in order to ensure a positive outcome.
This idea, that a news incident is best handled by slamming the lid down tight, is a backwards and ignorant frame of mind we’re accustomed to hearing from certain government officials. That this attitude should find such active proponents on the internal BBS of one of China’s premier academic institutions should be heard as another warning signal of how seriously wrong things are in our current education system.
This editorial first appeared in Chinese at Southern Metropolis Daily.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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