A taxi driver has become an overnight celebrity in China after he found a huge bundle of cash in the back of his taxi and promptly returned it to its rightful owner.

Zhao Lei found 170 000 yuan (R285 000) in a paper bag on the back seat of his taxi after taking a young couple to a car dealership in Harbin, in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang.

Instead of keeping the huge haul – probably three times his annual salary – he handed it to the company he works for.

The firm contacted the passengers and returned the money.

The delighted couple, who said they had been carrying the cash so they could pay for a new car, tried to offer Zhao 10 000 yuan as a reward for his honesty, but he refused to accept the cash.

“It is what I have to do,” the driver said after news of his deed came to light.

“Anyone who lost such a big amount of money will go crazy. I won’t take advantage of that.”

Taxi drivers in China earn less than 5 000 yuan a month for working punishing 14-hour shifts, six days a week.

The story of Zhao’s selflessness is likely to be held up as an example of community spirit by the Chinese media, in contrast to a wave of stories demonstrating the increasing individualism of society.

In 2011, a little girl who was run over by two cars was seen on camera bleeding to death while nearly 20 passers-by simply ignored her plight. – Daily Mail