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A lot of fuss over one yuan
2004/10/26
A 10-year-old primary schoolboy in Yangzhou, East China, came across one yuan lying on the ground when he was out shopping with his mother. He picked it up and gave it to a policeman at the street corner, who then, in front of the boy, threw the one yuan onto the ground.

The news soon triggered a hot debate. Sighs ranged from those over the depreciation of one yuan today to those over the depreciation of traditional moral values. Accusations were poured over the policeman that his act really hurt the emerging kind heart of a small schoolboy.

People at or above my age are all too familiar with the song that goes: "I picked up one fen (a Chinese cent) in the street and I was happy to put it into the hands of the policeman."

"Do not pocket the money one picks up" has long been a traditional value upheld by generations of Chinese people (despite the fact or fiction reported in some foreign media that if a wallet is dropped in various countries, in China there is the least possibility that it will be returned to its owner). In the drafting process of China's Property Law, there was even strong moral antagonism against legislating a certain amount of the returned money to be given to the finder because that would seem to contradict traditional moral values.

Now the scenario in the song materialized exactly but ended up with a rather discouraging result: the policeman finally threw the one yuan away. So it is just natural that there should be accusations against him - the policeman's action destroyed the beautiful memory of an old song from the good old days.

But things always have another side. If looked from a different perspective, the story may not seem too unusual.

The policeman in the story was responsible for traffic and did not seem to have the power to collect lost money on behalf of the State. Furthermore, even if he had that responsibility and power, it was still not appropriate to simply put the money into his hands without any registration or formalities.

I believe that if the policeman had not thrown the money away but, on the contrary, the story said that he put it into his pocket and never mentioned it again, the press would make no less a fuss about it and there would be the same social cynicism.

It was really wrong for the policeman to throw the one yuan onto the ground, which showed nothing but his contempt for both the monetary and moral value. But let's find some way to solve it. Just accusing the policeman cannot cure the problem.

If it were not one yuan but one fen, would the press still have made a mountain out of it? Maybe not, because the journalist himself or herself may not think much of one fen and probably refuses to accept fens in his or her supermarket shopping.

So the conclusion is that it is not cost-effective to pick up and return a very small amount of lost money and such deeds, which cannot effectively be propelled by human instinct, should then be encouraged by the system.

Currently there does not seem to be any government department expressly empowered to take lost money which has been found. In some other countries, not only are there such government departments but they also place special collection boxes on the street where people who pick up small amounts of money can put them. And the money collected is then used for charity or public works. Or articles that can be identified can be sent to special departments for future reclaiming by the owners and a portion of the money is usually given to the finder as a reward.

So it is hoped that the next time the dilemma arises it is not about what to do with the money or where to put it.

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