Car Culture Invades Beijing
- Car Culture Invades Beijing
From the South China Morning Post 2nd January 2002
On a cold winter morning, a radio announcer alerts drivers to
traffic jams on the Second and Third ring roads, and at scattered
locations across Beijing. ''Too many private cars,'' said my taxi
driver as the traffic came to a standstill.
He has a point. Taxis serve the public, while the private car, which
in the last year has made alarming gains in numbers, does not.
Unlike Los Angeles, which for better or worse grew up with the motor
car, Beijing's traditional layout makes few concessions to the
greedy demands of automotive life.
There is something tragic and ugly about cars dripping oil on the
marble paving stones of Qing dynasty courtyards, blocking crowded
pavements, hogging bicycle lanes, and drivers constantly honking
their horns to get people out of the way.
While private car ownership is still rare, a newly empowered
generation is making their presence known, like a neighbour of mine
who has her driver use the car's horn to alert her in the morning,
even though she leaves at the same time every day. ''If I want him
to blow the horn in front of my door, it's my business,'' she said.
The problem is, there are 1,000 neighbours who have to suffer the
noise every day.
Perhaps being the owner of something powerful, expensive and rare
enhances a person's sense of entitlement. But an uneven distribution
of transportation resources brings about conflict.
There are numerous, hard-to-confirm reports of impoverished peasants
blocking rural highways to protest about corruption. In one flare-up
on Beijing's airport road in November, farmers who had been squeezed
off their land demonstrated against a local official who allegedly
pocketed their compensation money and bought three new cars.
Although Beijing is enjoying unprecedented prosperity, it is rapidly
becoming a city of two classes, those with cars and those without.
Cars are more than a status symbol, they are instruments of
dominance. When the roads are clogged, cars flood the bicycle-only
paths, forcing riders into the gutter or on to the pavement, which
in turn leaves pedestrians squeezed up against the wall. And you
take your life into your own hands if you try to cross the ever-
widening Beijing streets.
A recent children's television show featuring a day in the life of
traffic police officers showed children watching two officers as
they directed the traffic on a busy road. Even with the camera crew
and police there, drivers sped up to beat the red lights, swerving
On narrow streets, where high speeds are not usually possible,
drivers use their horn constantly to clear a path.
Why are car owners in such a rush compared with everyone else?
Beijing's world-famous hutongs, laid out in an intricate pattern
which is pleasing to the eye and fascinating to the walker - and
home to countless generations before cars were invented - are being
slashed open, if not torn down entirely, to make way for wider
Last year, a Chinese oil company built a huge petrol station next to
the ancient imperial retreat of Beihai Park, one of Beijing's better-
preserved historic zones.
''But Americans have cars,'' cries the nationalist voice, smarting
from countless indignities, real and imagined. ''We Chinese don't
want to be seen as bicycle and bus-riding people. We can have cars
China has become one of the world's largest consumers of cars,
registering a fivefold increase in imports from Japan last year.
Xinhua news agency promotes the line that individual car ownership
is to be encouraged, dismissing the chorus of voices worried about
safety, the environment and the stark inequities.
Suddenly the private car, and the lifestyle that goes with it, is
king. With hundreds of new vehicles hitting the roads of Beijing
every day, the mistakes made in cities where man has become servant
to the motor vehicle are being blindly repeated, if only out of
vanity. In the rush to become ''civilised'', life is becoming less
But there are glimmers of hope. Beijing still has the most generous
bike paths of any big city in the world. Minibuses and motorcycles
are banned from the inner city.
In my taxi, traffic crawls haltingly, even though it is well past
rush hour and the streets are cleared of snow. The driver tunes the
radio to a traffic station, where the unlikely Zen-like topic
of ''swords in the hand and swords in the mind'' is being discussed
in relation to the new Zhang Yimou film, Hero.
A short while later a listener calls in and skilfully applies the
Zen sword metaphor to the knot of Beijing's traffic mess.
''If we do not have cars on hand, if we do not have cars on our
mind, if we all use public transport, there will be no traffic
Philip Cunningham is an Asia-based writer. (nakwaning@...)