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    The Missing Driver: How a Tragedy Sparks Kindness Across China

    When Zou Chengjun’s life couldn’t have been any worse after a scooter mishap, a viral video of his story ignited an overwhelming wave of support from strangers nationwide.

    At 1:43 a.m. on July 24 this year, a young man’s life took a fateful turn as he tumbled off his scooter while riding through a tunnel in Yichang in the central Hubei province. In a city of nearly 4 million people, such accidents often slip into obscurity, but this time destiny had other plans. This fall robbed Zou Chengjun, a skinny 33-year-old renovation worker, of all his strength, leaving him to stagger back to the small room he rented nearby.

    Trying to sleep off the pain, Zou said to himself, “If I wake up tomorrow, then I’ll go to work. If I don’t, then so be it.” The crash had dealt him an orbital fracture, a broken jaw, and a shattered kneecap. Exacerbated by his blood clotting disorder, he was also bleeding profusely.

    As he drifted off, three men armed with flashlights were outside looking for him, tracing the trail of blood he had unwittingly left behind. The search party expanded, with many still inquiring about his well-being to this day. Thousands of strangers have reached out to him, hoping to help him get the medical treatment he so desperately needs.

    A history of ailing health

    During the few minutes that Zou took to drag himself from the accident site to his rented room, his memory seemed to have abandoned him completely. All he could think about was getting home to sleep.

    With his head slumped forward, he staggered along the road as if he was drunk. He felt extremely dizzy.

    In a city section shrouded in darkness, devoid of streetlights, he stumbled through the pitch-dark lane towards his room. When he turned on the light, the hot, musty air wafted over him.

    Uncharacteristically fatigued this time, Zou has suffered from insomnia since 2019 when his business crumbled and recently sold his car to clear some debts. In the three years since, his social media presence has dwindled, except for crowdfunding requests for mounting medical expenses.

    In 2020, Zou grappled with his mother’s surgery. The following year, his father had a brain bleed, was diagnosed with moyamoya disease, a rare genetic blood vessel disorder that affects the brain and causes sudden collapse, and underwent a craniotomy. In 2022, it was his turn — a bout of severe acute pancreatitis made him spend eight days in intensive care.

    At the beginning of this year, he had finished recuperating, and returned to work to start paying off his debts. The night of the scooter mishap, he was riding home from a renovation job, fetching a laser ruler that he needed to use the following day.

    Before the accident, signs of Zou’s deteriorating health had surfaced. In March, Zou felt dizzy and collapsed. After borrowing 4,000 yuan ($560) from a friend to get a medical checkup, he found out that he, like his father, also had moyamoya disease that affects only three to four people out of every 100,000.

    The doctors urged Zou to undergo surgery as soon as possible, even though the post-surgical recurrence rate “could be as high as 73%.” There is currently no cure for the disease and the only treatments available are for managing the symptoms. The day after his diagnosis, however, Zou discharged himself from hospital.

    He concealed the incident from his parents and tried to plunge back into normalcy. He continued working, injecting insulin four times a day for his severe pancreatitis, and eating a small bowl of rice. He also set himself a budget of 1,500 yuan a month to support his parents’ debt repayment in case he dies before them.

    On July 24, after he paid back his friend the 4,000 yuan he had borrowed for his hospital tests, he experienced another dizzy spell and fell off his scooter in a tunnel.

    Footage from a police officer’s body camera showed that at 2:59 a.m., the lights were still on in his room and an old fan pointed toward the bed was blowing. Dai Shengjie, a police officer, peered through a crack in the door and saw Zou lying naked on his side, his eyes slightly open. Dai knocked on the door for three minutes, but Zou did not respond.

    The crash unveiled

    At 1:46 a.m., traffic police in Yichang’s Xiling District received a report from a concerned passerby that someone had crashed in the Yunji tunnel and could not get up.

    Officers Dai Shengjie, Zhang Xing, and Tang Wenzheng, who were on duty until 8 a.m. the following day, responded to the call. They had already dealt with more than 20 reports earlier that day and finally got time to sit down for dinner at 11 p.m. When the three officers arrived at the scene, they found a white electric scooter lying on its side with the key still in the ignition but no sign of its owner. Two pools of blood about the size of a steering wheel marked the ground, and a helmet lay two meters away.

    Despite apparent severe injuries, the rider had vanished. Zhang suspected that the rider might have been involved in other legal trouble, perhaps a fugitive or a drunk driver. However, drunk driving on an electric scooter generally only leads to a warning and a maximum fine of 50 yuan. “So there’d be no need to run,” Zhang thought, determined to find the person and get to the bottom of the matter.

    Zhang contacted the control room and asked them to check the cameras in the tunnel. The footage showed that at 1:43 a.m., a white electric scooter was traveling normally through the tunnel for 700 to 800 meters. Then suddenly, the scooter and its rider fell to the ground.

    At 1:45 a.m., the rider staggered to his feet and tried to pick up the scooter. He had not even managed to get it halfway up when he fell again, hitting his face on the ground. Four minutes later, he was able to sit up. He sat on the ground for a while, then stood up and walked away.

    A food delivery driver also called the police after passing by the crash scene, and returned later to check. Concerned about the missing injured rider, he asked the traffic police, “Where did he go?”

    Taxi driver Ran Ming and his passenger Yang Haiyun were also looking for the missing rider. As they were driving through the tunnel, they witnessed the scooter and its rider flash by the taxi’s window. Yang and Ran decided to go back to help in whatever way they could.

    Ran circled around and went back into the tunnel. When they arrived at the crash scene, the rider was already gone. He turned his high beams on and drove forward slowly. “There was a person walking, covered in blood,” Yang said.

    Following the trail, Ran and Yang finally found Zou and took him in. The pair insisted on taking him to the hospital, but he refused to go, saying he could not afford to pay. Sitting in the back seat, Yang, who is the mother of an 11-year-old, empathized with this young man and contemplated whether to give him some money. She thought, “The kid looked like a student. His parents may not be around.”

    The taxi came out of the tunnel, turned right and, coincidentally, stopped opposite a middle school where the “student” got out.

    Regretting not giving Zou some money before he got out of the car, Yang urged Ran to do a U-turn to try to find Zou, but he had already vanished into the darkness only minutes later.

    In dire straits

    A shy man, Zou avoids asking for favors from others and prefers facing adversity with silent resilience.

    The day he was diagnosed with moyamoya disease, he had got up early to go to the bathroom and fallen against a table. He climbed back into bed, messaged his employer to ask for the day off, and laid there the whole day. He waited until it was past work hours to finally call a friend to ask for a lift to the hospital. Worrying about the cost, he also requested not to call an ambulance.

    After being admitted to the hospital and undergoing tests, Zou was on his own. The complex procedure left Zou with six catheters inserted in his body. After the procedure, one sympathetic doctor could not bear to see him in such a state and wheeled him back to the ward. Zou wasn’t able to get out of bed for a whole day and night, so he had to rely on his neighboring patient’s family for basic needs.

    At the time, he admitted to feeling bitter. “I wanted my parents to come take care of me too, but my family situation wouldn’t allow it,” he said. “What if the doctors have bad news and it scares them?”

    As Zou expected, when his father, Zou Weiping, eventually learned about his son’s accident and illness in July, he stormed around the house “like a crazy person.” His wife Xiang Qingping followed behind him, trying to convince him to go to sleep.

    The news of Zou’s illness devastated his father, who ended up in the suburban health clinic in Yichang. Feeling anxious about the family’s financial burden during his stay, he offered to work as a helper there. After having his own intravenous drip, he would go take care of other patients who could not look after themselves, earning 180 yuan for a day and night’s work. Meanwhile, his wife worked in the clinic as a cleaner with no days off to take home 2,000 yuan a month.

    For years, the cash-strapped family had been borrowing money whenever they could. Feeling shameful, Zou’s mother felt that their neighbors avoided her when she walked past their homes. “They’re afraid that I’ve come to borrow money,” she said. No one would serve as their loan guarantor either.

    Zou also found himself lonelier than ever after being diagnosed with moyamoya disease. He thought that he should minimize his interaction with others, knowing that his condition would only cause nothing but pain to them. He even went as far as starting to avoid eating with other people. “If one day I collapse, the whole table will suffer,” he said. He began isolating himself, only commuting between home and work every day. That was until he did finally collapse.

    Drowning in despair, he imagined a short and miserable life that lay ahead. He reached out to his friend, the only person he maintained contact with, seeking assistance in handling affairs after his eventual passing. Zou had no idea when he might collapse, so he asked his friend to call him every day. If he didn’t answer, his friend was to go check on him: He’d either be at work or at home. On July 15, his depression prompted him to send a video with his final words along with the password to his phone to the friend.

    Tragedy unfolds

    Upon receiving the report of the car crash, Zhang, the police officer, located Ran via his license plate number in the video footage and found several drops of blood near where Zou got dropped off. The officers searched both sides of the street with flashlights for more than 20 minutes, but found no further traces. Zhang sat in his car, found the registration information for the white electric scooter’s license plate, and called the phone number.

    The scooter belonged to a friend of Zou’s. The call woke her up and she guided the police officers to Zou’s home over the phone. The officers tried knocking but to no avail. Just as they were about to break down the door, Zou finally woke up.

    He opened the door, leaning unsteadily against the wall. Seeing several people dressed in uniform enter his room, Zou’s head dropped and he tried to think what could have happened. “Did I break the law? What have I done?” he asked.

    Police officer Tang entered the room and spotted a plastic bag filled with blood-soaked tissues hanging from the drawer of the desk. On the floor beneath the bag was a case of beer. “How long were you planning to hole up here on your own? We’ve been looking for you all night,” Tang said.

    Footage from the officers’ body cameras showed that Zou was initially resistant to attempts to help him. His hair was disheveled and he held a tissue against his chin as he impatiently repeated: “I don’t have money to go to the hospital, I just hit my jaw.” Four minutes later, Zhang took a pair of Zou’s trousers and bent down to put them on him.

    At 3:22 a.m., Zou was sent to the hospital. The doctor started by cleaning his wounds. One of the police officers kept his cellphone for him, but Zou suddenly looked up from the bed and said, “Don't call my parents.” He started to break down, bursting in tears and telling them his story and the family’s struggle. He had never felt so relieved in all his life, he later recalled.

    After treatment, the doctor brought him the bill — 214.5 yuan. Empathizing with Zou, Zhang proceeded to pay the bill for him, but was stopped by Zou. When he tried to turn on his phone to pay, he found that the screen had been smashed.

    “Don’t bother scanning the payment code, there’s no point,” Zou said, raising his voice in frustration. “My illness can’t be cured! Don’t waste your money!” He laid flat on his back, his bloody chin pointing upward.

    When Zou went to get his wounds stitched, the three police officers left. But before he had finished all his treatment, he slipped away. The doctor had reminded him that he needed to get a tetanus shot, but he knew that was beyond his financial reach.

    Community support

    Unbeknownst to Zou, his story became a social media sensation after the traffic police in Yichang uploaded the one-minute rescue video, drawing over 150,000 likes and 18,000 comments. Four days after the video went viral, local officials from Zou’s neighborhood paid him a visit to deliver food and handed him financial aid of 4,800 yuan. Ten days later, local officials from his parents’ residence increased the family’s government subsidy from 999 yuan to 1,500 yuan.

    On social media, an outpouring of support ensued, with people across the country leaving comments on the video, eager to donate to Zou. Eventually, someone found his social media account, and he was inundated with hundreds of private messages.

    After his contact information was made public, “almost every second, someone would transfer money to me,” Zou said. A stranger gave him as much as 10,000 yuan for him to get health care in Beijing. Another person, while only donating 100 yuan, told Zou that he “identified with how you feel” as he was also battling with illness and relying on a friend to help him settle things after his passing. Touched by his story, Zou’s donors included people from all walks of life, from a college graduate who could only afford to give him 20 yuan due to being unemployed, to a child who made 50 yuan by selling scrap. Another person wrote “Zou Chengjun, Get Well Soon” on a beach to cheer him up.

    As his story went viral, more people came looking for him. While some simply chose to donate money, some went as far as forming chat groups — seven in total — with one even potentially saving his life.

    When Zou was testing his blood sugar, he found that the glucometer he was using produced an error message. He posted a photo of it in the group, saying it was broken. One group member knew that the message meant the number was too high to be displayed, so they urgently contacted one of his friends in the group to take him to hospital.

    Buoyed by community support, Zou has made more friends who live nearby, such as Hu Rongrong, who runs a small restaurant business with her husband and has brought him meals several times. Once, at 2 a.m., she read that Zou mentioned he was hungry after people had shared food photos in the group. She immediately replied, “I have food here.” Someone had previously posted his dietary requirements in the group. Hu took a look, then cooked some beef, mutton, vegetarian dishes, and a bowl of egg custard at her restaurant, then paid for a taxi to deliver it to Zou.

    Zhou Xingpo, employed in sales, became Zou’s first online friend. Around that time, Zhou was anticipating the birth of his child, who had been diagnosed with a congenital disease. Despite his financial constraints, Zhou offered to help Zou with chores. Numerous gifts, ranging from sugar-free cookies, skimmed milk, towels, kettles, rice cookers, and electric fans, were sent by people from across the country. Zhou would collect and deliver them to Zou.

    Encouraged by the support from these strangers, Zou slowly began to feel more optimistic. Grateful but also unsure of how to express his gratitude, he came up with an idea to upload a video saying, “Come to my home at Lunar New Year. We’re roasting a pig to celebrate.”

    Zou’s father raised a pig at home weighing more than 150 kilograms. Hu, the restaurant owner, had tried this delicacy before and got a large strip of pork smoked with fruitwood from Zou. “I barely did anything, yet he gave me so much more,” she said.

    On Oct. 27, Zou announced that the total amount of online donations had reached 570,000 yuan, prompting him to close his crowdfunding campaign. Some still tried to find ways to give him financial help, such as medical insurance card top-ups and cash gifts to his e-wallet. Zou later returned more than 100,000 yuan received via WeChat.

    While 570,000 yuan is sufficient for a craniotomy, it remains a significant amount for Zou.

    After undergoing surgery, Zou will need two years to recover. During this time, he hopes to sell products from his hometown through livestreaming so that he can start an e-commerce business. He struggles to look beyond the next 10 or 20 years, as he’s been hospitalized 11 times since July last year. In August, he was readmitted for diabetic ketoacidosis. A month later, a tumor was found on his pancreas, although a biopsy later confirmed its benign nature.

    Zou is currently navigating survival. He gave up his rental room in the city and moved back to his mountainous village. There, he is focusing on improving his health while awaiting news of his upcoming brain surgery.

    Reported by Du Jiabing.

    A version of this article originally appeared in Bingdian Weekly, a platform for in-depth stories from China Youth Daily. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Ni and Elise Mak.

    (Header image: Zou Chengjun sits in his friend’s car, November 2023. Du Jiabing/Bingdian Weekly)