Teetering on the edge of a slippery rock, a young woman loses her footing and plunges into a river. Moments later, she flails and then floats face-down as one shocked onlooker screams, “Hurry, hurry, save her!”
Within seconds, a man flings off his shoes, leaps from a ledge and swims toward her, lifting her head from the water as he paddles her to the shore.
The man, Stephen Ellison, is the British consul general in Chongqing, China, and he has been widely hailed as a hero on Chinese social media after video of the swift rescue on Saturday spread quickly. The effusive response to the diplomat’s actions stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly strained relations between Beijing and London over the national security law imposed on Hong Kong, the initial handling of the coronavirus and a dispute over the Chinese tech firm Huawei’s access to 5G wireless infrastructure in Britain.
Mr. Ellison, 61, was visiting the ancient town of Zhongshan, about 75 miles south of Chongqing, on Saturday when he heard the crowd scream and saw a young woman struggling in the water, the British Embassy said in a post on the social media platform WeChat.
In the video, recorded by a bystander and later shared by the British Embassy in Beijing, Mr. Ellison leaps from a ledge before swimming to the woman, who is floating with her face in the water, barely moving. In the background, a woman can be heard saying the situation was “fortunate to have this foreigner.”
Another onlooker threw a lifesaver to Mr. Ellison, who grabbed it as he guided the woman to shore. A handful of others on the bank then helped them out of the water.
“The situation was critical,” the embassy said in its post. It noted that the woman had lost consciousness, but because of the timely rescue, “soon regained breathing and consciousness, and was all right.”
The embassy added that when Mr. Ellison, who was appointed to his post this year, was back on dry land, “he was well looked after by the local villagers,” who poured him a hot cup of coffee and gave him fresh clothes. One user on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, called Mr. Ellison an “English gentleman.” Another called him the “Chinese people’s friend.”
But while praise for Mr. Ellison has poured in, other commenters focused on the fact that no locals had jumped in to rescue the woman and that they had done little to help as she flailed.
“So many people did not jump to save the girl, but waited for a foreigner to jump to save her?” one person wrote.
“It was outrageous,” another posted. “Most of them were taking videos, and there were only a few of them saving her, and the first one was a foreigner!!!”
Drownings are all too common in China, where many people do not know how to swim; in a 2018 article on the problem, Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, lamented that “Chinese culture places little importance on learning swimming skills.” Drowning is the number one accidental killer of children in China under the age of 14, according to the World Health Organization.
There have been a number of incidents in recent years in China in which bystanders have ignored people in distress, apparently — at least in part — because of a widespread perception that if someone intervenes, there is a chance that person could be liable for hospital costs or otherwise held legally responsible.
Some instances, often those in which a video of the tragedy has gone viral — like when a toddler was hit by a car and ignored in 2011 or when a man beat his wife to death in the street this month — have prompted waves of national soul-searching.
In March 2017, in response to such incidents, China adopted its first “Good Samaritan” law, providing some legal protection to those who voluntarily offer emergency assistance to others. The law was intended to ease people’s reluctance to get involved, but some say attitudes have been slow to change.
Amy Chang Chien and Amy Qin contributed reporting.