When is a Man’s Life Worth Less Than An Oxygen Bottle ?

Having previously lived in Shanghai for 8 years (2012-2014), I am not easily shocked by level of anti Japanese sentiment amongst the Chinese.  I still recall the demonstrations of 2005 when the crowds gathered to stone the Japanese consulate and Japanese cars and businesses were vandalised.

The state had been whipping up the hysteria for weeks, supplementing the usual nightly TV diet of anti Japanese 2nd world war soaps with extra hits of propaganda.  The people were suitably enraged by the stories of Japan’s use of war crime denying school text books.  The fact that the books were dismissed by many Japanese educationalists and were apparently used in less than 1% of Japanese schools was of course not relayed to the Chinese people.  “Spontaneous” risings of an indignant Chinese people was what was required and the telling of the truth would only hamper the state’s orchestration of these “spontaneous” demonstrations, so the truth was expediently withheld.

Several academics at the time argued that the text book controversy was  simply a device used to inflame the Chinese people into demonstrating when in fact the real reason behind the Communist’s party’s ire was the proposal that Japan be granted a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  Whatever the truth, as i saw for myself, a great number of Chinese people enjoyed the opportunity to gather en masse and vent their anger against their old foes…

Years later, at a wedding reception in Bangkok, my Irish friend John began to tell me of his  very unpleasant journey out from Shanghai on China Eastern Airlines.  I wouldn’t believe the way a Japanese passenger had been treated he said.   Considering myself an old China hand, and so inured to such stories, I doubted that anything he could relate would shock me.  Shock me, it did however…

While waiting for take off in Shanghai, a middle aged man took his seat alongside John.  The man looked deathly pale and it was quite obvious to anyone that he was clearly not well.  Not long after take off, the man’s condition deteriorated further and he was now having difficulty breathing.  Despite the man’s quite obvious distress, strangely, none of the surrounding passengers showed the slightest concern.

Increasingly worried by the deteriorating situation, John pressed the button to summon a flight attendant.  After a seemingly interminable delay, the flight attendant appeared, though to my friends irritation, she too seemed disinterested in the condition of his fellow passenger, intimating that John was in reality just making an unnecessary fuss.  Undeterred my friend pressed her to urgently see if there was a Doctor on the plane who could attend to the sick man.

With obvious reluctance, the attendant finally agreed to seek out a Doctor and a few minutes later she returned with one, much to my friend’s relief.  John’s relief was to be short lived however.  The Doctor conversed briefly with the sick man before uttering words  ;

“Tā shì rìběn rén !   Which translates as “He is Japanese !”

The Doctor then marched off in apparent disgust.

John now started to feel increasingly panicked.  His neigbour was by this time only semi- conscious.  He was having great difficulty breathing, his face was a deathly pale and the only Doctor available was refusing to treat him because he was Japanese !

Then in a moment of inspiration, the answer came to him.  He remembered that planes carried a number of oxygen bottles for occasions just such as this.  He once again remonstrated with the flight attendant who after great protestations, eventually agreed to bring an oxygen bottle and mask.

The bottle was brought to the seat and it was then left to John to turn it on and administer the treatment.  The man’s breathing eased, some colour returned to his face and he even managed a weak smile.  John felt some relief.  It looked like his fellow passenger was not going to expire, well at least not on this flight.  No thanks to the Chinese flight crew and passengers though…

Around 40 minutes before their Bangkok landing, John noticed that the oxygen bottle was near to empty.  Not to worry he thought, there will be plenty more from where that came from.  He summoned the flight attendant again.  He explained how they needed one more bottle of oxygen as it looked very likely that the current bottle would run out before landing.

To John’s surprise the attendant was adamant that they could not have another bottle.  In desperation he called over another attendant and explained as patiently as he could that another bottle was imperative. His fellow passenger’s condition had been stabilised by the provision of the oxygen and if they refused to provide another when this bottle ran out, then his life could be in danger once more.  It was to all to no avail however.  No, they simply could not hand over another bottle.

“But surely you have more than one oxygen bottle !  Please just bring it here before this one runs out”… he implored….

“I am sorry sir, but we only have a further 2 bottles.  If we give one of those to your friend then we won’t have enough bottles for the return flight and consequently the flight would be delayed until we get replacement bottles….”

John was stunned.  Was it true that the flight would be delayed until they had replaced the bottles or had she just made that up as an excuse for not handing over another bottle ?  Either way, she wasn’t denying that they had more oxygen bottles and it was pretty clear that the cabin crew were of the firm opinion that however critical the condition of the Japanese passenger, they would not be handing over another oxygen bottle.

In the end, the withholding of more oxygen, thankfully, did not prove to be critical.  The Japanese passenger managed to hold out for the remaining 30 minutes of the flight and as altitude decreased, his condition noticeably improved however even on landing he still looked far from well.

John asked the attendant if they had arranged for an ambulance or at least some medics to attend to his fellow passenger.  She looked at him with undisguised disdain, as if he were demanding the earth.

My friend, annoyed at the total indifference to the plight of the Japanese passenger displayed by both crew and passengers sought out the senior steward to make his feelings known.  He asked how they would feel if a western air crew showed no concern for the welfare of a Chinese passenger.  Did they think it right that a passenger should be treated so badly just because he was of a certain race ?

The senior steward was unmoved and told John that he was a troublemaker.  The steward was quickly joined by the pilot who looked at my friend with disgust and told him to get off the plane !

Under duresse and increasingly worried that he might be arrested, John agreed to leave the plane. As he was manhandled toward the exit, he glanced back to his seat to see that his Japanese friend, whilst looking a little disoriented, was clearly in much better health than he had been only a short while before.

Back at the bangkok wedding reception, as he finished his story I said ;

“Well, as horrendous an experience as it was, at least you know that you did the right thing, that you behaved like the good Samaritan.  On the other hand, you are probably on a blacklist and won’t be able to fly China Eastern again.”

“I never want to fly China Eastern again !”  he replied.   Who could blame him !

Anyway, in answer to the opening question, the answer is “When he is Japanese” apparently…..


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