Monday, September 28, 2009

Driving in China: The Deadly and the Dead

Recently the Chinese government has stepped up a campaign against various driving offenses (drunk, speeding, or other violations of traffic law; a major problem in China). Like many other campaigns--at any given time, there's always something!--I'm aware that this one has cropped up sporadically for many years. Some years ago, in the desolate town of Cherchen which skulks by the remote southern edge of the Taklamakan desert, I witnessed a battered and scarred poster showing car crashes--propaganda intended to scare drivers into obeying the traffic rules. The decayed state of the signage suggested that the desert sand storms of many years had rasped across its surface since the bygone campaign of its inception. The sign may soon blow away into the sandy expanse, but the problem it addresses won't.

The latest campaign may have begun this past spring, around the time that my college posted on its bulletin board full of edifying/horrifying pictures chock-full of dead and dying car accident victims similar to what I'd seen before. The other foreign teachers expressed disgust at the goriness of those pictures, but of course the intended audience was our wealthy, irresponsible batch of students: many of mine spent this summer practicing for their driver's license and I shudder at the thought. The image of one of those kids behind the wheel makes me more sympathetic to the government's methodology.

By late summer, the campaign must have been in full swing. In the little Miao (Hmong) minority village of Xijiang, set amid the mountainous countryside of Guizhou, Kiera and I watched a film version of the same. Drunk drivers were interviewed, traffic police were shown giving breathalizer tests, and further corpses were shown strewn outside the wreckage of their cars. This must have been diverting edutainment, because a decent selection of the townsfolk turned up to watch as the bloody images were shone (and shown) through the fabric of a white sheet strung up across the town's main road.

The fear of the local drivers pervades those of us who have lived here a while, but what has brought this problem to the surface at this moment? Certainly accidents are happening everywhere in China, all the time. Actually, I saw a taxi run into and tip over a woman on an electric moped earlier today. A co-worker tells a story of two little girls he saw killed on the streets of Suzhou, little, orphaned slippers lying askew in the middle of the intersection ahead of him. The richer cities are paradoxically suffer worse from deadly drivers, it seems. Suzhou and Hangzhou, both rich cities full of so-called 'Chuppies' or Chinese yuppies, seem to have some of the worst accidents reported in the news. Perhaps this is because wealth in China so often removes any sense of accountability (guanxi, or connections, is all you need to escape consequences in most cases); also because rich individuals have money to buy driver's licenses rather than go through the testing process. I have Chinese friends who have done just that--thankfully, the couple I'm thinking of don't yet have a car. The driver's licensing department here in Nanjing even provided a cheating service to a foreign co-worker of mine who was trying to get his Chinese driver's license. They provided, for around 400 yuan (approx. $60), a "translator" who just went through, question by question, and told him which answers to circle. Yes, Nanjing is a very foreigner-friendly city... but it's drivers aren't. I've seen enough flipped or smashed cars along its roads to be leery in extreme of ever driving here.

So Hangzhou was the scene of the latest furor--and what I imagine began this campaign for better driving. A rich kid drag-racing through the city killed a pedestrian. Another recent accident saw a Porsche kill a young girl, also in Hangzhou. This article ( talks about an elderly gentleman who threw stones at a succession of cars running a red light. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't considering doing the exact same thing. Clearly public opinion is coming to a head on the issue. Thus the crackdown. The problem with crackdowns, however, is that they often seem to end with little substantial, permanent change. A few show trials and many propaganda speeches later, the political elite move on to crackdown topics of personal interest to them and the nomenclatura to use their influence to continue their bad habits--whether whoring, gambling, driving drunk, or pirating foreign products. I hope, for the sakes of all who live in the grasp of China's grid, that this time is different: drivers less deadly, less of the dead.

1 comment:

Cassandra said...

Interesting post. It reminds me of the some of the discussions I've seen in Christian circles about outlawing or cracking down on moral issues. It may reduce (known) incidents for a time but doesn't really address the heart of the issue - the need for people to have a living, breathing relationship with Christ, which will foster love and caring for other people. Letting Christ permeate our entire lives will lessen the "whoring, gambling, driving drunk, or pirating foreign products."

This is Jeff's wife, btw. :)