Middle school student Xu Lihan never imagined that a note of apology left on a car he accidentally damaged would ignite an online discussion regarding social morals.
The 17-year-old thought it was just bad luck when his bike bumped into a BMW parked on the side of the road in east China's city of Yangzhou, breaking a rearview mirror and leaving a scratch on the vehicle.
Though knowing he would have to pay a hefty amount to compensate for the damage, Xu decided to wait for the vehicle's owner to return. When he didn't, Xu left a note claiming responsibility for the damage.
"I'm sorry that I can't give you compensation right now," read the note, which ended with his phone number.
"There was nothing extraordinary. I caused trouble, so I should shoulder my obligations," Xu told Xinhua.
But his act amazed the owner of the car, a man surnamed Ling.
Ling said he found the boy was about to leave when he and his friend left a nearby restaurant. Finding the car damaged, Ling's friend immediately grabbed the teenager, as they suspected he was fleeing the scene of the damage, and prepared themselves for a fierce argument.
"But the boy did not defend himself. Instead, he kept apologizing. Then we spotted the note and fell silent," Ling said. Impressed by Xu's act of honesty, Ling told the student he did not need to pay for the damage.
The story, detailed by Ling on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging site, made an unexpected splash, with netizens forwarding and commenting on the story tens of thousands of times within days.
"Interesting comparison: adults are 'amazed and moved' by an act of honesty, while teenagers like Xu just take it for granted," remarked one blogger with the screenname "Diguoliangming."
The perceived disintegration of China's moral fibre has been a hot topic both online and in the real world, as many Chinese have grown accustomed to immoral acts ranging from the counterfeiting of goods and the sale of false college degrees to government corruption.
The moral malaise has prompted calls for discovering "positive energy" derived from kind acts committed by ordinary people. Netizens have heartily hailed stories, such as that of a student who quit college to tend to his sick mother, for their role in restoring confidence in the power of kindness.
"If such virtues are common among the next generation, I believe that society still has hope," Ling said.
Immediately after the incident, Ling updated his online statement to express gratitude toward the teenager for encouraging self-reflection among adults.
"Thank you, child, for purifying the minds of adults who have been contaminated in this filthy world," it said.