Public Comment

The Country of Thieves

Rebecca Wu
Sunday November 01, 2015 - 05:48:00 PM

When I was attending high school in China, I noticed something very strange: every time we had a class discussion, our class would automatically separate into two teams: me versus everyone else. All of my teachers and classmates would have the exact same opinion about any given topic. What’s more, nobody was forcing them; they actually did all think alike! 

Take the time we were studying Italo Calvino’s Black Sheep. After reading the fable, the entire class (minus one) came to one sound conclusion: in a country where everyone steals, good people have no choice but to turn bad too, or else die. How inconsequential the actions of one good person! How cruel the blow of the real world! 

The fable itself is as follows: 

There was a country where they were all thieves. 

At night everybody would leave home with skeleton keys and shaded lanterns and go and burgle a neighbor’s house. They’d get back at dawn, loaded, to find their own house had been robbed. 

So everybody lived happily together, nobody lost out, since each stole from the other, and that other from another again, and so on and on until you got to a last person who stole from the first. Trade in the country inevitably involved cheating on the parts both of the buyer and the seller. The government was a criminal organization that stole from its subjects, and the subjects for their part were only interested in defrauding the government. Thus life went on smoothly, nobody was rich and nobody was poor. 

One day, how we don’t know, it so happened that an honest man came to live in the place. At night, instead of going out with his sack and his lantern, he stayed home to smoke and read novels. 

The thieves came, saw the light on and didn’t go in. 

This went on for a while: then they were obliged to explain to him that even if he wanted to live without doing anything, it was no reason to stop others from doing things. Every night he spent at home meant a family would have nothing to eat the following day. 

The honest man could hardly object to such reasoning. He took to going out in the evening and coming back the following morning like they did, but he didn’t steal. He was honest, there was nothing you could do about it. He went as far as the bridge and watched the water flow by beneath. When he got home he found he had been robbed.  

In less than a week the honest man found himself penniless, he had nothing to eat and his house was empty. But this was hardly a problem, since it was his own fault; no, the problem was that his behavior upset everything else. Because he let the others steal everything he had without stealing anything from anybody; so there was always someone who came home at dawn to find their house untouched: the house he should have robbed. In any event after a while the ones who weren’t being robbed found themselves richer than the others and didn’t want to steal any more. To make matters worse, the ones who came to steal from the honest man’s house found it was always empty; so they became poor. 

Meanwhile, the ones who had become rich got into the honest man’s habit of going to the bridge at night to watch the water flow by beneath. This increased the confusion because it meant lots of others became rich and lots of others became poor. Now, the rich people saw that if they went to the bridge every night they’d soon be poor. And they thought: ‘Let’s pay some of the poor to go and rob for us.’ They made contracts, fixed salaries, percentages: they were still thieves of course, and they still tried to swindle each other. But, as tends to happen, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer and poorer. 

Some of the rich people got so rich that they didn’t need to steal or have others steal for them so as to stay rich. But if they stopped stealing they would get poor because the poor stole from them. So they paid the very poorest of the poor to defend their property from the other poor, and that meant setting up a police force and building prisons. 

So it was that only a few years after the appearance of the honest man, people no longer spoke of robbing and being robbed, but only of the rich and the poor; but they were still all thieves. 

The only honest man had been the one at the beginning, and he died in very short order, of hunger. 

(Retrieved from 

I naturally became the only person to challenge the class’s “democratic consensus.” I thought that in no society does a person have only one option to choose from. Why did the honest man have to passively accept his “fate?” Why couldn’t he have rebelled, spoken out, or at the very least ran away? 

At my words the entire class reacted violently: “Who are you to judge that man? Did you go through his hardships? Have you ever tried living in a country of thieves? Do you really think you would have done any better under the same circumstances? How naïve Americans are.” Friends and neighbors consoled me: “In China, the bird who sticks out of a crowd will be shot, the person who tells the truth will be attacked. It is only a class. It is not a big deal. It is safe in numbers. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This is for your own good.” After going through the ordeal a few times, I decided to keep my mouth shut. 

On 2015 September 7th, I saw on the news that an elderly man in Kaifeng City, Henan Province, China, had died on the street after falling off his bike. Ironically, he had died because nobody dared to help him up. The picture of this poor old man gave me a hard blow to my heart. I realized that, if we choose to stay silent, if we do not choose to fight for justice, we will be doomed to suffer the consequences of a country where they were all thieves. 

Is death the only option for an honest person in a theif country? Looking upon history, we can see that man has frequently gone through times when bad people dominate: the good are mercilessly crushed, and evil prevails. However, even in such times the human race has produced those who refuse to succumb, whether by fierce rebellion, by spiritual influence, or by stubborn non-conformation. 

Other than passive starvation, we would have at least the following three options: 

One, change people’s hearts to change the world. Shakyamuni Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus Christ, and other visionaries were all born into turbulent times, but they managed to found the world’s greatest religions, leaving a wealth of wisdom for their descendants. None of them chose to passively starve just because the environment was hostile; rather, they used their actions to build an everlasting legacy, one that has lasted thousands of years. 

Two, stick to your personal integrity. That was ideal success for ancient Chinese Confucius: If you are in power, save the whole world; If you do not have the chance, maintain your own integrity. It’s true that not everyone can be Jesus Christ to save mankind, but we do have the ability to choose our own behavior. The honest man could have struck a bargain with his neighbors: leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone. If A stealing from B, B stealing from C, and C stealing from A used to work perfectly fine, why should the addition of a new person D change anything? Just go on with your thievery cycle and pretend I don’t exist. If his neighbors proved too stupid to get his reasoning, the honest man could have run away. The country where they were all thieves is not the only place in the world. America’s first European immigrants came so they could escape oppression in Europe and stay true to their own religious beliefs. If they had chosen to passively starve to death where they were, we would not have the United State of America. 

Three, change the rules. There is more to the world than the rules of thievery. Thievery can be a nuisance: risky, time-consuming, and inefficient (what you steal may not be what you really want). Why not use the rules of the free market? We can establish a market in which we exchange goods at equal values; everyone can be happier. We can see a trend towards such social order in the course of human history. To achieve our objective, we can write books, hold forums, set oneself as an example, appeal to the leaders, or use any other one of the gazillion methods that don’t involve starving to death. 

As a member of the country of thieves, we can maximize short-term gains by choosing to steal or stay silent. However, on a larger time scale, each and every one of us will ultimately pay the price for doing so. We are like fish living in the same tank: if the water is contaminated, no single fish can escape the consequences. Why did no one approach the elderly man in KaiFeng after his fall? Because people were afraid of being blackmailed. The elderly as a whole became a shunned group in China. 

Many of China’s current problems, including pollution, fraud, and corruption, stem from the fact that citizens rarely stand up for what is right, preferring to stay silent and protect themselves. 

Black Sheep is a fable that says different things to different people. The response of myself and many others American friends is that the honest man did not die from honesty; he died from cowardice. He invited his own fate! Why didn’t he stand up for himself? Why didn’t he run away? Maybe the existing social order was hard to fight, but why didn’t he even try

Black Sheep is an example of a badly designed social standard, one that we should take to heart and avoid at all costs. We must not let such an order gain the better of us. 

One haunting issue in China is the fake-traffic-accident fraud, more commonly known as “knock down your porcelin.” The gist: an elderly person falls over, and a sympathetic passerby comes to help him up, only for that person to sue them on fraudulent charges that the passerby had knocked him over. In one 2013 Dazhou City, Sichuan Province, three elementary school children helped an old “granny” up after she fell. At the hospital, she declared that they were the ones who knocked her over and demanded 7,500 Yuan (about $1176). In the end, the children’s families paid 1100 Yuan in a settlement, because the old granny’s family insisted if the responsibility for an accident is not clear the parties are supposed to share responsibility. 

These and similar cases have had a crushing effect on morale. The 2015 Kaifeng incident I mentioned earlier is just a natural result of a society that lets the blackmailing granny win. The shameless “Granny” had turned many good people to bad with her evil intention. 

A society that does not reward good people is never sustainable; a society where there is no justice will harm everyone eventually. Luckily, people have been making many efforts to erect this despicable condition. In the 2013 Dazhou case, the three children were later proved innocent with the help of two policemen and witnesses, even receiving a 5,000-Yuan award from a Good Samaritan charity in 2015 August. The elderly woman’s son, inciter of her actions, was detained for ten days and fined 500 Yuan. Earlier this month, Beijing drew up a draft legislation to protect good people from being sued by those they help, to the cheers of many. Such good news gives us hope. Perhaps passerby will be just a little more willing to help one who is in need, and a little more, and a little more, until we have a society where everyone is willing to lend a helpful hand. 

If you are a good person, please do not be afraid to stand up! Do not let bad things happen to you. 

If you are happened in power, please uphold the standards to protect good people. You will certainly benefit for your effort. We are in the same ecosystem, inter-connected. 

Stand up, all you who yearn toward justice! Together we can create a better world, a country where we are not thieves.