Man versus machine on Beijing's streets
Fwd: IHT Man versus machine on Beijing's streets
On Behalf Of Barter, Paul Sent: Tuesday, August 03, 2004 9:55 AM
International Herald Tribune
Meanwhile: Man versus machine on Beijing's streets
Philip J. Cunningham
IHT Tuesday, August 3, 2004
BEIJING The courage of ordinary Beijing citizens never ceases to elicit wonder. Fifteen years ago, the populace stood in the way of tanks and soldiers, desperately trying to preserve a civic space they lived in and loved. Today, pedestrians can still be seen playing chicken with heavy, groaning vehicles in singular, random acts of defiance. They are standing up to the onslaught of sport utility vehicles and black-tinted limousines that herald the arrival of a two-class society in the People's Republic - those with cars and those without.
For every incessant horn honker, speed demon and oil-dripping car blocking a sidewalk, there's a stubborn pushcart vendor, an overflowing fruit stand and a floating curbside chess game making right-of-way claims to the same lanes and public thoroughfares.
Tempers, especially in the torrid summer weather, are hot and rising. It's a David-versus-Goliath struggle in which society's poor and less advantaged put their humble selves in the way of imperious traffic. Resistance is risky, perhaps futile, but a compromise may grow out of the conflict. First-generation drivers, perhaps a bit giddy and overenthusiastic behind the wheel, are confronted daily with reminders that the streets do not belong to them alone.
A widely reported saga in which a wealthy car owner ran over and killed a defiant pedestrian with impunity was not an isolated case. And the explosion of interest in the story on the Internet shows it touched a raw nerve. China has an appalling accident rate, resulting in more road deaths than the United States with only a fraction of the cars.
Gasoline-burning vehicles not only degrade air quality and pose physical dangers, but are altering a centuries-old way of life.
Reaction to the brave, new motor world is mixed, a combination of beating it and joining it. The carless sneer with both envy and resentment at the self-important nouveau car owners, once bare-chested bicyclists like themselves. But a country with China's population cannot attain or sustain a one-car-per-family lifestyle.
China's standard response in the face of the unknown - building a wall - has been in evidence, but rendered ineffectual because of state support for car-owners' claims of right of way.
Oddly, parking lots are the one ingredient of car culture that have been largely overlooked in the rush to imitate the West. As a result, car chaos is rampant.
Crossing streets has been dangerous in Beijing for quite some time, given the incessant road widening and traffic volume, but only in the past few years have the generally well-appointed sidewalks become danger zones - part parking lot, part service road, crowded with impatient cars and angry cyclists who have been squeezed out of the bicycle lanes by bigger vehicles.
One day, while trying to squeeze past an illegally parked sport utility vehicle that forced pedestrians to walk in the street, I asked the driver, as she opened the door of her vehicle with a proud flourish of the keys, why she had parked on the sidewalk. "Because there's no place to park." What she meant of course, was that there was no place to park in front of the hamburger restaurant she had just exited, though there was ample street parking a short distance away.
During the conflict of 1989, Beijing residents frightened by the humiliation of imminent military occupation erected makeshift roadblocks of sticks, stones, bricks and branches on major arteries leading into the city, making a gesture against the inevitable. Even when armored personnel carriers and tanks reached the perimeter of Tiananmen Square, makeshift barricades and tank traps were hastily erected with metal poles, cement chunks and bricks. An echo of this can be seen in the attempts today to slow the commercial automotive onslaught - a few bricks or bottles here, a broken paving stone or some rubbish there, unmenacing enough to be driven over, around, dispersed or pulverized.
The Great Wall of China, erected at unimaginable human expense, failed to slow the historic waves of barbarian advance, but it remains a testament to the human stubbornness and pride, the desire to protect a way of life under threat. This time around there is no Great Wall to keep the hordes of metallic steeds at bay, but notice has been served. The streets and most especially the back alleys, will not be yielded without resistance.
Philip J. Cunningham is freelance journalist based in Beijing.
[forwarded for education and research purposes]