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Chinese Car Culture

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  • Andie Miller
    Capitalist Roaders By TED CONOVER Published: July 2, 2006 Zhu Jihong cannot wait to get started on his holiday road trip. At 6 a.m. on Saturday, the first day
    Message 1 of 2 , Jul 8, 2006
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      Capitalist Roaders

      Published: July 2, 2006

      Zhu Jihong cannot wait to get started on his holiday road trip. At 6 a.m. on
      Saturday, the first day of the October National Day week (one of three
      annual Golden Weeks in China, intended to promote internal tourism and
      ensure that workers take some time off), Zhu has parked his brand-new
      Hyundai Tucson S.U.V., with its limited-edition package of extras like
      walnut trim and chrome step-bar, in front of my hotel in downtown Beijing.
      He is half an hour early, but he is in a hurry. He cannot believe I'm not

      Li Lu, a friend who is coming along as my interpreter, has found me in the
      hotel restaurant. She was rousted even earlier than I, at her apartment a
      couple of miles away, and calculates that Zhu, to make it into Beijing from
      his home on the city's outskirts, must have gotten up at 4. She adds that
      she's a bit concerned: she helped me book a spot on this car trip and had
      assumed that the driver whose car we shared would be a person of, well,
      culture. But Zhu, she says, is "not educated."

      "What do you mean?" I ask as we leave the hotel's revolving glass doors and
      come upon Zhu.

      Zhu is nicely dressed, in the dark slacks, leather loafers and knit shirt of
      many Chinese businessmen. Cigarette in one hand, hair recently cut and wavy
      on top, Zhu, in his 40's, has a somewhat dashing, youthful air. Before Li Lu
      and I are out the revolving door, he is at the back of the Hyundai, making
      room for my knapsack and pointing me in the direction of the leather
      passenger seat. He stops to shake my hand only after I pause and offer mine.
      Li Lu is our intermediary and tries to effect the introduction I'm after,
      but Zhu is not one for formalities; he gives a tiny nod, then circles the
      car, hawks noisily and spits by his door, climbs in and turns the key. Li
      Lu, from the back seat, gives me a look that says: See? What did I tell you?

      But as the car fills with smoke from his cigarette and the CB radio battles
      for supremacy with operatic Red Army tunes on the CD player, I don't much
      mind Zhu's manners (which, Li Lu explains, reflect the factory owner's
      peasant background) because we're off on an adventure and Zhu's excitement
      is infectious. Our trip is a seven-day excursion from Beijing to Hubei
      Province in Central China, including stops at the Three Gorges Dam and a
      mountainous forest preserve called Shennongjia, fabled home to a race of
      giant hairy ape-men. And though the trendy enterprise we are part of is
      known as a "self-driving tour," we are not going alone: a dozen carfuls of
      other people have signed on with the tour, organized by the Beijing Target
      Auto Club, one of the for-profit driving clubs that are sprouting all over

      Zhu is ready for a long day at the wheel - our destination, Nanyang, is more
      than 500 miles away - but it's going to be even longer than he thinks. Our
      rendezvous with the other cars at the Zhuozhou rest stop, normally an hour
      away, will be delayed four hours, as thick fog closes the expressway. Heavy
      rain will fall, and our early start will count for little by midday as the
      highways swell with holiday traffic. There will be wrecks, like the fatal
      one-car rollover we'll pass on a bridge around midnight, an upside-down
      Beijing-plated Mitsubishi. The hotel's dinner will be waiting for us at 1
      a.m., and we'll all be happy to see our rooms. But right now Zhu is pouring
      himself tea from a thermos and telling Li Lu how rich he is and how lucky we
      are to be in his car.

      "He says he is an excellent driver and we will go very fast," she reports

      The figures behind China's car boom are stunning. Total miles of highway in
      the country: at least 23,000, more than double what existed in 2001, and
      second now only to the United States. Number of passenger cars on the road:
      about 6 million in 2000 and about 20 million today. Car sales are up 54
      percent in the first three months of 2006, compared with the same period a
      year ago; every day, 1,000 new cars (and 500 used ones) are sold in Beijing.
      The astronomic growth of China's car-manufacturing industry will soon hit
      home for Americans and Europeans as dirt-cheap Chinese automobiles start
      showing up for sale here over the next two or three years. (Think basic
      passenger car for $10,000, luxury S.U.V. for $19,000.)

      But of course the story is not only about construction and production; car
      culture is taking root in China, and in many ways it looks like ours. City
      drivers, stuck in ever-growing jams, listen to traffic radio. They buy auto
      magazines with titles like The King of Cars, AutoStyle, China Auto
      Pictorial, Friends of Cars, Whaam ("The Car - The Street - The Travel - The
      Racing"). Two dozen titles now compete for space in kiosks. The McDonald's
      Corporation said last month that it expects half of its new outlets in China
      to be drive-throughs. Whole zones of major cities, like the Asian Games
      Village area in Beijing, have been given over to car lots and showrooms.

      In other ways, though, the Chinese are still figuring cars out and doing
      things their way. Take the phrase used to describe our expedition:
      "self-driving trip." It is called self-driving to contrast it with the more
      customary idea of driving in China: that someone else drives you. Until
      recently, everyone important enough to own a car was also important enough
      to have his or her own driver. Traditions grew up around this, like the
      chauffeur joining his boss at the table for meals while on duty - something
      still commonly seen.

      But those practices are growing fusty. What are new and explosively popular
      are car clubs - some organized around the idea of travel, like the Beijing
      Target Auto Club, and others organized around the idea of. . .well, simply
      fun. The Beijing VW Polo Club, for example, has an active Web site and
      hundreds of youthful members. (The Polo is a VW model popular in Europe and
      Latin America and now manufactured in China as well.) Club members meet
      regularly to learn about maintenance, deliver toys to orphans and take
      weekend pleasure drives reminiscent of America in the 30's and 40's. To
      celebrate the 2008 Beijing Olympics, four-dozen members recently turned up
      in a giant parking lot to form the Olympic logo with their compact,
      candy-colored cars, each circle a different hue. Single members have found
      mates in the club, and at least one of their weddings featured an all-Polo
      procession through the streets of Beijing.

      In the West, cars can still excite, but the family car soon becomes part of
      the furniture. In China, however, it's nothing of the sort. Li Anding,
      author of two books on the car in China and the country's leading automotive
      journalist, told me why when he invited me to join some of his industry pals
      for dinner in Beijing. "The desire for cars here is as strong as in America,
      but here the desire was repressed for half a century," he began. All private
      cars were confiscated shortly after the Communists came into power in 1949,
      supposedly because they were symbols of the capitalist lifestyle. Having a
      car became the exclusive privilege of party officials.

      Across the table, Li Anding's colleague Li Tiezheng explained that "people
      my age loved Russian movies. They gave us the idea we should all own a car,
      and we all wondered why we couldn't." Li Tiezheng bought his first car - a
      Polish-made Fiat - when private ownership was finally permitted in the
      mid-1990's. But the stigma against ownership was still huge. "The pressure
      was so great, I couldn't tell anyone. I lied that I had borrowed it."

      That didn't last long. By 2000, enough regulations had been removed, and
      enough people were making money, that car ownership became a reality for
      many Chinese for the first time. Li Anding, born in 1949, the year the
      Communists came to power, said he was still astonished at the change: "When
      I started writing about cars, I never expected to see private cars in China
      in my generation, much less some of the world's fanciest cars, being driven
      every day."

      As the men around the table listened to Li's history and added to it, there
      was a palpable sense of pride. This wasn't simply progress on the level of a
      convenience - analogous, say, to your neighborhood moving from dial-up to
      high-speed Internet. To them it was China finally entering the world stage
      and participating fully in human progress. It had the additional meaning of
      something long denied that could finally be acquired, like a wrong being
      rectified. Over and over again, the group described car ownership with a
      term I would never have thought to use:

      "Once China opened up and Chinese people could see the other side of the
      world and know how people lived there, you could no longer limit the right
      to buy cars."

      "This right is something that has been ours all along."

      "Driving is our right."

      When Li Lu noticed the sign for the Zhuozhou Service Area of the Jingshi
      Expressway, Zhu Jihong was on one of his favorite subjects: destinations. He
      had done self-driving to Mongolia and Manchuria, he said, to Xinjiang and to
      Xi'an and the Silk Road. He made a round trip to Tibet - fantastic! - and
      was considering one to Hong Kong. The main problem with our current
      itinerary, in his opinion, was that it was too short: "A week isn't long
      enough to really feel like you've been away." His wife was less and less
      interested in these odysseys, preferring, lately, to stay home and mind the
      hotel and restaurant he had bought near his hometown outside Beijing. And
      his son, oddly enough, wasn't interested in driving at all.

      Li Lu interrupted Zhu and made sure he noticed - this was where we were to
      pull off and finally meet the group. Though it was early afternoon now and
      Zhu had been driving for hours, he barely looked tired. I thought to peek at
      the odometer of his two-month-old Hyundai as he slowed; it showed 7,700
      kilometers, or nearly 4,800 miles. That was an annual rate of nearly 30,000
      miles, and most of them would be pleasure driving.

      Though the parking lot was the first time most members of the trip had seen
      one another, they had been talking for hours: each driver, before today, had
      stopped by the Beijing Target Auto Club office to pick up a CB radio and
      rooftop antenna. The rendezvous was on one side of the lot, and in the
      middle of the group was a vehicle with the biggest antenna of all, a thickly
      bumpered, sticker-plastered, red-flagged Chinese-made four-by-four belonging
      to the president of the Target club, Zhao Xiangjie.

      Zhao and his truck were decked out for safari: he was wearing a khaki
      utility vest with many zippers, busily meeting members of the group as they
      arrived. Across the lot, a self-driving group from Guangzhou was similarly
      mustered, easy to spot by the big stickers with numbers on everyone's side
      doors and rear windows. And this, it turned out, was Zhao's next duty, to
      adorn each vehicle with its numbers. My driver, Zhu, accepted his with great
      ceremony, cleaning his doors first to ensure good adhesion, making sure the
      number decals were straight and even. If one theme here was safari, another
      was road rally, the decals suggesting that everyone was part of a speedy

      Though most are organized around the idea of trips, Chinese car clubs come
      in many flavors. Some are run by dealers (like a Honda dealership in
      Guangzhou), and others (like the VW Polo Club in Beijing) are nonprofit and
      organized around a particular model. At least one is the offshoot of an
      outdoor-recreational-gear manufacturer. Many are just for four-wheel-drive
      vehicles and aim to go to the back of beyond. Travel agencies sponsor some;
      others are run for and by motorcyclists.

      One of Zhao Xiangjie's advantages, at the Beijing Target Auto Club, is good
      connections in officialdom. He has worked as a composer, filmmaker and
      official celebration organizer; he knows important people and has succeeded
      in getting them to steer big commissions his way. His auto-club offices are
      in the government-run Olympics Center. In a speech he gave to the 2005 Auto
      Clubs and Fans C.E.O. Forum, I heard him assert that more government
      involvement was needed if automobile-related industries like the clubs were
      to develop in an optimal fashion. I sensed that he wouldn't mind being
      China's first under secretary of car clubs.

      But an alternate strategy may have more momentum. Back in Beijing, a young
      man named Chen Ming helps run what appears to be the largest self-driving
      organization in China: the auto-club arm of Beijing traffic radio FM 103.9.
      His employees, around 100 of them, occupy a floor and a half of a midsize
      office building. Chen Ming has high volume and a rapidly growing business.
      Linking an auto club to traffic radio seems inspired. Members pay $27 a year
      and receive benefits that include group insurance rates, gasoline rebates,
      "auto rescue" within Beijing's Fifth Ring Road, free rental cars if a repair
      takes more than three days, et cetera. Chen got his start in the business as
      Zhao's protégé - he was assistant manager of the Beijing Target Auto Club -
      and when I spoke with him in Beijing, he shared his belief that Zhao's
      approach, his eagerness to stay involved with the government, is outdated.

      Maybe half of the vehicles in our group were S.U.V.'s and the rest were
      passenger cars, almost all with foreign labels - Toyota, Volkswagen,
      Mitsubishi, Citroën - not the cheaper Chinese models that made up the
      majority of cars on the road, the Fotons, Geelys, Cherys, JAC's. (More than
      40 local brands are currently manufactured in China.) One of the foreign
      cars caught my eye: a flashy white Volvo S80, driven by a man who was also a
      distinctive dresser. With his white leather loafers, tight jeans, white belt
      with a big silver buckle and white shirt ("Verdace," read the logo), Fan Li,
      a television producer, cut an intriguing figure. He was accompanied on this
      trip by his pretty 24-year-old daughter, Fan Longyin, who was recently back
      from film school in France. Longyin was quickly becoming friends with Jia
      Lin, a single female reporter for The Beijing Youth Daily, who was in her
      30's. Jia wore a tan leather jacket with a winged glossy-lip logo on the
      back that said "Flying Kiss." Like me, Jia came without a car, but it looked
      as if she would start riding with the Fans.

      And then there was the attractive young family in the white Volkswagen
      Passat, the Chens: Xiaohong (who uses the name Peter with English speakers),
      the personable information-technology executive; his wife, Yin Aiqin, an
      electric power consultant; and their 4-year-old daughter, Yen Yi Yi, whom, I
      would soon learn, was already taking voice lessons at home from a member of
      the Beijing Opera.

      More nerdy but genial were the bespectacled Wangs, in their Citroën Xsara:
      she ran part of the back office of Air China; he worked for an international
      freight firm. They, too, had an unattached passenger who shared the driving
      and expenses. He was the urbane Zhou Yan, a partner in China's third-largest
      law firm.

      And then there were the businessmen. Organized by a cement-plant owner, Li
      Xingjie, these 10 or 11 guys from the same Beijing suburb, Fangshan, rode in
      S.U.V.'s and tended to stick to themselves. Some of them owned
      coal-processing plants, which meant they were rich.

      Soon all 11 cars were bedecked with numbers and the club logo. Pit stops and
      snack purchases were completed; the service area looked a bit like one on an
      American toll road, though there was no landscaping, the simple restaurant
      was not a fast-food franchise and the convenience store was not as
      elaborately stocked as in the States. The gas station - state-run Sinopec -
      filled Zhu's Hyundai for about $1.85 a gallon, and I paid in cash, gas and
      tolls being my contribution to expenses. (Sinopec stations only recently
      began accepting credit cards.) Everyone piled back in their cars, and we hit
      the road. We would reconvene for dinner.

      China's first modern expressway, the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Superhighway, was
      built in the early 1990's by the Hong Kong tycoon Gordon Y.S. Wu. Wu studied
      civil engineering at Princeton in the mid-50's, when construction was
      beginning on the U.S. Interstate Highway System. At the same time, the New
      Jersey Turnpike was being widened from four lanes to many lanes, and Wu has
      said it inspired him. (His powerful firm, Hopewell Holdings, is named after
      a town near Princeton.) Though Wu ran short of money and the ambitious
      project had to be rescued by the Chinese government, the toll-road model of
      highway development caught on.

      Wu's Guangzhou-Shenzhen Superhighway was the beginning of an infrastructure
      binge that seems to be only picking up steam: the government recently
      announced a target of 53,000 freeway miles by 2035. (The U.S. Interstate
      Highway System, 50 years old last week, presently comprises about 46,000
      miles of roads.) Some new roads, especially in the less-developed western
      parts of the nation, are nearly empty: China is encouraging road
      construction ahead of industrial development and population settlement,
      assuming those will follow.

      The goal, of course, is not simply to replicate the boom of coastal areas,
      where the majority of the country's population now lives. China's larger aim
      is to consolidate the nation. Its version of Manifest Destiny - the "great
      development of the West" or "Go West" policy begun in January 2000 -
      envisions far-western territories, like Tibet and the fuel-rich province
      Xinjiang (the name translates as "New Frontier"), fully integrated,
      ethnically and economically, with the rest of the country. It seems quite
      likely that, similar to the case with American history, local indigenous
      cultures stand to lose along the way. What the United States gained (and
      lost) with the Pony Express, covered wagons and steam trains, China may
      achieve with roads and automobiles.

      If highways in China's west are so far awaiting traffic, easterners have the
      opposite concern. As we headed south from Shijiazhuang toward Zhengzhou, the
      roads packed with vacationers and truck traffic, Zhu jostled for position
      with all the other people who were late getting where they were going. His
      style of driving helped me understand better why China, with 2.6 percent of
      the world's vehicles, had 21 percent of its road fatalities (in 2002, the
      most recent year for which figures are available).

      Of course, there must be many reasons. The large number of new drivers is
      one; few of today's Chinese drivers grew up driving, and road-safety
      awareness seems low. Many roads are probably dangerous - though not, I would
      venture to say, the beautiful new expressway we were on. It was like an
      American Interstate, only sleeker: the guardrails were angular and
      attractive, not fat and ugly, and in the divider strip there was typically a
      well-pruned hedge, high enough to protect drivers from the glare of beams
      from opposing traffic at night. Beyond the guardrails, grassy embankments
      sloped down to buffer areas carefully planted with a single species of tree,
      often poplar. The road surface was perfectly smooth, transitions even,
      signage sparse but clear. Periodically we saw orange-suited workers
      hand-pruning the center hedge or sweeping the wide shoulder with old
      handmade brooms. There was never a maintenance truck nearby; wherever they
      came from, they apparently walked.

      It was the sweepers I worried about. Officially, there were two lanes of
      travel in each direction. But each side also had a shoulder, and on this
      expressway, at least, the shoulder was exactly as wide as the travel lanes.
      Thus Zhu and others (despite signs asserting that it was forbidden) used the
      shoulder as the passing lane. Occasionally, of course, a sweeper would loom,
      or a disabled vehicle, and Zhu would slam on the brakes and veer into the
      truck lane. Once past the obstacle, he would floor it and swerve back out,
      brake once again, swerve, honk - it was almost like being in a video game,
      except that video games end or you can walk away. We, on the other hand, had
      a long way to go.

      "Li Lu, does Mr. Zhu know that more Chinese die on the road every day than
      died here during the entire SARS epidemic?" I asked her. She translated. Zhu
      looked at me and laughed. "I think he didn't understand," she said. We
      consulted, and soon Li Lu announced from the back seat that we both really
      wished he would slow down a bit. Zhu looked at me sidelong and then, if
      anything, speeded up.

      he next morning Zhu was tired, finally, and asked if I wanted to drive. I
      hesitated for a moment. I had researched the issue and was fairly certain
      that foreign tourists were forbidden to drive between cities in China. Most
      Chinese, however, seem never to have considered the possibility of
      foreigners behind the wheel, and from the beginning, Zhao asked whether I
      would be willing to help with the driving. Far be it from me to shirk this
      responsibility. So I said sure and climbed into the driver's seat.

      This day's driving was different from the previous day's. As we moved
      farther from the coast and its expressways, we spent more time on national
      highways, which generally are two-lane and pass through a lot of towns.
      Everyone in the club stuck pretty close together, and there was a lot of
      chatting over the radio. Our leader, Zhao, began by apologizing for
      yesterday's overlong drive. Even if there hadn't been a highway closure due
      to fog, slowness due to rain and holiday congestion, it was too long a drive
      for the first day, and he was sorry. But he was also upbeat and sounded
      excited about getting to Three Gorges Dam that afternoon. He moderated the
      CB chat that followed, prompting each car's occupants to take turns
      introducing themselves. Some told a joke, some sang a song. Fan, in the
      white Volvo, put on an Elvis Presley CD and held his mike to the speaker,
      playing "Love Me Tender" in honor of me, Elvis's countryman. As we passed
      through one village an hour past breakfast, a clamor rose for a pit stop.

      The men had little trouble finding places to relieve themselves near the
      edge of town, but women were in more of a bind. China's car culture - not to
      mention consumer culture - has not yet reached the countryside, and there
      was no restaurant nearby, no fast-food joint, no gas station/convenience
      store. Chen Yin Aiqin, her daughter at her side, knocked tentatively on the
      door of a farmhouse and was soon welcomed inside and ushered to the latrine
      out back. Afterward, before their car pulled away, she dashed back to the
      farmer's door with a small box of chocolate from Beijing.

      The lack of infrastructure for touring drivers is one reason that these
      organized self-driving tours are so popular. Besides having planned in
      advance (through arrangements with local travel agents) where we would stop
      to eat and sleep every day, Zhao had an expert mechanic in his four-by-four:
      repair garages were few and far between, and one of the Beijingers' main
      fears was breaking down far from home, with nobody trustworthy nearby to

      The national roads, while more interesting to drive than the expressways,
      were also more nerve-racking. There were considerable numbers of people on
      bicycles, on foot and on small tractors; there were crossroads; and least
      expected by me, there were many places where I had to swerve toward the
      middle of the road because of farmers having appropriated a strip of
      pavement along the edge for drying their grain, usually corn. Sometimes the
      grain was laid out on blue tarps; other times the drying zone was outlined
      by rocks or boards; more than once, traffic slowed because of it. I had
      heard of Chinese farmers sometimes laying their wheat across the road so
      that passing vehicles would thresh it for them. But there was something
      aggressive about this appropriation of the highway.

      The suggestion of rural hostility toward traffic and the number of people
      using the road for walking put me in mind of the famous "BMW Case," which
      received a lot of media attention two years before. A rich woman in a BMW,
      probably traveling on a road like this, was bumped by a farmer transporting
      his onion cart to market. Enraged, she struck the farmer and then revved her
      car and drove into the crowd. The peasant's wife was killed, but despite
      widespread outrage, China's Lizzie Grubman received only a suspended

      BMW's seemed to be a sort of class-divide lightning rod. Recently, the
      number of kidnappings for ransom has shot up in China - the government
      reported 3,863 abductions in 2004, higher than the 3,000 a year reported on
      average in Colombia, the previous world leader. "In one case," according to
      The China Daily, "police searching the apartment of kidnappers in Guangdong
      Province found a list of all BMW owners in the city that appeared to have
      come from state vehicle registration rolls."

      I was hoping to needle Zhu a bit, and so I asked him, if he was so rich, why
      didn't he have a BMW?

      "Bad value," he said, explaining that while many foreign carmakers had
      plants in China and produced high-quality cars at a reasonable price, BMW's
      were all imported, with huge taxes added on. And indeed, this is true:
      tariffs and taxes add about 50 percent to the price of imported cars, making
      them high-status items. If you want to be really ostentatious, you do what
      rich guys like coal-mine operators from Shaanxi Province increasingly do and
      come into the city to buy a Hummer - those cost upward of $200,000. But Zhu
      thought that was ridiculous. The Volkswagen Passat he kept at home for his
      wife to drive was made in China, he said, as were growing numbers of other
      excellent foreign-designed cars, all of them produced under joint ventures
      with Chinese companies (some state-owned or -controlled), an arrangement the
      government hoped would encourage the growth of a domestic car industry.
      "Like my Hyundai," Zhu said proudly, putting his cigarette in his mouth so
      he could pat the dashboard. "Made in Beijing."

      Not long after lunch, we started seeing signs for the Three Gorges Dam and
      accessed the site through tunnels along an expensively built mountainside
      road. Security was tight, with numerous guard posts, cameras and warning
      signs, and I was happy to swap seats with Zhu as we pulled into a roadside
      waiting area - just before an official came by to collect every driver's
      license. A guide boarded our leader's car and, over the radio, began a
      running commentary. I asked Zhu, between her remarks, what he thought of my

      "He says you are a good driver, but he has some advice," Li Lu reported. "He
      says to improve, you must be more brave!"

      Three Gorges Dam, one of the largest construction projects in history,
      seemed a fitting first attraction for our trip, evoking superlatives in this
      land of superlatives. It has cost an estimated $75 billion so far (including
      corruption and relocation costs); it will require more than a million people
      to be relocated; it would generate more hydroelectric power than any dam
      ever had; and it spans the Yangtze, the third-longest river in the world.
      The reservoir began filling up in 2003 and has six years left to go; it
      presents a huge military target.

      Like so much in China, the scale is almost too large to fathom. The 30-odd
      people in our group parked and then boarded buses that took us up to a
      visitor center above the dam; we peeked at a model dam indoors and then,
      like scores of others, scrambled around the viewpoint, taking lots of
      pictures. Fan turned out to have a serious interest in photography: his
      daughter posed, posed and posed again as her father assumed an exaggerated
      wide stance with his heavy Nikon digital camera. Others focused on the
      astonishing dam, proudly making sure I got a good look, witnesses to a great
      change who were, themselves, harbingers of a change.

      Zhu was back at the wheel the next day as we drove from the Three Gorges
      area to Hongping, a town deep in Hubei Province and the jumping-off point
      for visits to Shennongjia, the forest reserve where everyone hoped to see a

      His Hyundai had a six-CD changer in the dash, and among the titles in it
      were "The Relax Music of Automobiles," which turned out to be instrumental
      versions of the love songs of Deng Lijun, the Taiwanese pop singer of the
      1970's. What Zhu really loved, however, was the old-time music on "The Red
      Sun: A Collection of Military Songs, Volume II." He played the CD again and
      again. The soaring, triumphalist music evoked bygone days, and I expressed
      surprise that a modern business guy like him loved the old socialist music
      so much. Zhu responded that it was the music he grew up with. He had worked
      on a farm, he confirmed. His grandfather became rich, but the Communists
      took it all away.

      "Don't you dislike Mao for that?" I asked. He looked at me full on when Li
      Lu translated the question and then, at 60 miles per hour, turned sideways
      in his seat to show me the pin on his left lapel. It was a dime-size brass
      relief bust of the Great Helmsman himself. Steering with his knees, he put
      his chin to his chest, unpinned it and handed it to me as a gift.

      "Many people still admire Mao very much," Li Lu explained. "They know he
      made mistakes, but they also think he did much good. He got rid of the
      Kuomintang. He brought China together. He is still a very big hero, like a
      god to some."

      Fan, the television producer, I had noticed, was also in the worshipful
      camp. He had the leader's portrait, in Lucite, affixed to the top of the
      dashboard of his Volvo so that he could not see anything through the
      windshield without Mao appearing in his peripheral vision. After I asked
      about that and complimented him on the DVD screens built into the back of
      the front seats (for rear-seat passengers), Fan invited me into the Volvo
      for the better part of a morning's drive. Longyin, his daughter, took a seat
      in the back, along with Jia Lin, the reporter, and offered some background
      on her father. "My parents both suffered a lot in the Cultural Revolution,"
      she began. Fan interrupted impatiently.

      "Oh!" Longyin said. "My father is saying: 'There is no such thing as a
      perfect person. Everybody makes mistakes. Mao saved many people, but to do
      it he had to sacrifice his son, his wife, his whole family - everything. Now
      he's gone, but I want to go back to that time, when people shared

      But do you really want to share everything? I asked Fan. Wouldn't sharing
      equally mean that a privileged few wouldn't be able to own new Volvos?

      "I think now is a necessary period," Fan said, as his daughter translated.
      "We have to advance."

      "Capitalism is something we've been waiting to try for a long time," Longyin
      said, quickly adding: "Personally, I hate the whole Mao thing. I think it's
      weird. I don't miss the sound of those old days at all." She did miss
      France, however, and her French boyfriend. She said she hoped to play a part
      in the growth of the Chinese film industry, perhaps by becoming an actors'
      agent. And some time in the next two or three months, she hoped to get a
      driver's license.

      was pleased to get to Hongping. The mountain hamlet was shrouded in mist,
      and the air was cool. Steep hillsides covered with deciduous trees rose on
      either side, and a creek ran through town, reminiscent of Vermont. We
      arrived at our hotel early in the afternoon, a nice change. It was three
      stars, clean, basic, but without a restaurant, elevator or easy parking, and
      soon we were checking out. "Beijingers are very picky," Li Lu told me. They
      didn't like it, and so Zhao had to find another. The new place seemed only
      incrementally better to me, but others were satisfied by the change. At
      dinner, Zhao was back to apologizing profusely for his poor judgment. But
      the men, anyway, were more interested in getting soused, and the error was
      soon forgiven.

      When everyone rolled out of the restaurant, vendors were on the sidewalk,
      and Fan made us - and them - laugh with his uncanny shrill imitation of an
      older woman who had been hawking a melon. Zhou and others had heard there
      was a "cultural promotion" - a show featuring local ethnic talent - on the
      edge of town and proposed we attend en masse. Zhu demurred, asserting that a
      strip club would be more fun, if only one could be found. We walked there
      without him, arriving early and securing a row of seats in the front.

      Though Zhou, the lawyer, spoke little English, I very much enjoyed his
      company. He was witty and sophisticated and, after a drink, warm and
      outgoing; every time he opened his mouth, it seemed, he made Li Lu break
      into laughter.

      Zhu, on the other hand, was a challenge. Along with being his passenger, I
      was his roommate, a difficult proposition. He smoked heavily, whether while
      sitting naked after a shower, braying into the phone at his wife or watching
      TV in bed, his head propped up by pillows. Often I knew he was awake in the
      morning by the click of his lighter and the smoke wafting over my bed. He
      snored raucously. He didn't believe in lifting the toilet seat. And always
      he fell asleep with the television on. This wasn't such a bad thing: usually
      I just reached over to the night table and clicked it off with the remote.

      But that night in Hongping, there was a snag. When I came back from the
      cultural show, Zhu was lying in bed on top of his sheets, watching a famous
      black-and-white movie from 1956, "Railroad Guerrilla," about Chinese peasant
      fighters throwing off the yoke of their Japanese imperialist occupiers. The
      guerrillas were just entering the imperial administrator's quarters when I
      came out of the bathroom: an extended storm of hacking machetes ensued, the
      Japanese falling left and right. Zhu murmured appreciatively and soon
      drifted off. I watched Japanese get cut down until I couldn't believe any
      could be left alive on the planet and then, over Zhu's rising snores, looked
      for the remote. It was nowhere to be found. The television itself had no
      on-off button, and its plug was hidden behind a heavy dresser; I needed to
      find the remote itself. Finally I spotted it, poking out from underneath
      Zhu's butt. I turned him over and extracted it, put in my earplugs and went
      to sleep.

      The next morning, Li Lu sympathized with my desire to switch roommates. Zhou
      the lawyer had said he would happily share with me. But she declared it was
      an impossibility: Zhu would lose face if I abandoned him. "And there is
      nothing worse for a man like him than losing face," she said.

      The next morning we hiked through the misty, craggy hills of Shennongjia.
      The area, known as "the Roof of Central China," is a Unesco biosphere
      reserve of 272 square miles, with six peaks measuring up to 10,190 feet
      above sea level. It was equally famous, among our group, as the home of
      China's Bigfoot. This creature, in the local lore, lumbered through the
      mists with a big-bosomed mate; an artist's rendition of the hairy couple
      appeared in the corner of a park billboard. But though the trails were
      beautiful and mysterious and we could imagine an ape-man happy there, none
      were spotted.

      The police were directing traffic at the park entrance, and as we left, one
      officer noticed me in Zhu's passenger seat and waved us over. Foreigners are
      not permitted to travel in the direction we were headed, he declared,
      pointing to a sign. Zhu pulled over and summoned Zhao on the radio. Our
      entire group stopped, and major discussion ensued, which resulted, some 20
      minutes later, in the policeman consenting to my passage. Zhao could be very

      "What was that all about?" I asked Li Lu.

      "There are army bases in the mountains ahead," she said. "It is thought
      there are missiles there, to protect the Three Gorges Dam. You can't see
      them from the road, but the army is afraid of spies."

      "But times are changing, right?" I asked. She looked uncertain, and I wasn't
      sure the answer was yes.

      We drove for more than an hour, stopping for lunch in another little
      mountain town, Muyu. Halfway through the meal, a policeman looked in the
      room where we were eating. Uh-oh, I thought. As we left, a different
      policeman spotted me and uttered something grave. Zhao was summoned again.
      Other policemen arrived. My passport was requested, a phone call was made.
      Word came down: I had to go back. The old China was still around.

      Zhao took me aside reassuringly and pressed a roll of yuan bills into my
      hand. Li Lu and I were to take a taxi back to Hongping, he said, while he
      figured out an alternate plan. We would call his cellphone from there.

      The solution, we gathered, looked arduous: take a taxi, train and taxi,
      meeting up with the group the next night, or take a single long and
      expensive taxi, meeting up with them the next afternoon, but missing the
      Wudang Mountains and their monasteries famous for martial arts. As we waited
      for a driver, a call came in from the group up ahead: the cops in Muyu went
      home at dusk, they had heard. After dark, we should be able to blow through
      without any trouble. We consulted with some locals, and they concurred. And
      so it was decided.

      We zoomed through Muyu without a hitch and, around midnight, passed as well
      through a couple of halfhearted traffic-boom-across-the-road checkpoints
      staffed by soldiers. I entered my hotel room in Wudang around 2 a.m. Naked
      on his bed, Zhu was sawing loudly, the television was blaring and the lights
      were all on. It was good to be back.

      The next day we took a cable car to a cloud-shrouded monastery atop the
      Wudang Mountains. A particular temple there is said to be a place where cash
      offerings can influence your destiny. After conferring a moment with the
      attending monk, Jia Lin, the reporter, made a largish donation: 100 yuan,
      over $12. Li Lu explained to me that Jia really wanted to find a husband and
      hoped to effect that result. Jia's search, in fact, was the reason she came
      on this trip, which she imagined to be the kind of exciting adventure where
      you might meet a man. So far, however, things weren't panning out.

      So belief in prayer was alive in China. What was less clear to me, after my
      brush with the police in the mountains, was how many in the urban, affluent
      world of self-driving tourers still believed in government authority.

      My test question was speeding. National highways were typically posted with
      limits of 50 miles per hour, and expressways up to 75 miles per hour, and
      the orientation brochure that each driver had received from the Beijing
      Target Auto Club insisted that we adhere to those limits. ("This is only
      self-driving, not car racing!" the brochure read. "Speeding is not
      necessary.") Yet all the drivers, including Zhao, paid the rules no
      attention whatsoever, often driving 100 m.p.h. or more. Police cars were
      seldom seen; when drivers spotted them, to my surprise, they paid no
      attention at all. The cops rarely used radar, it turned out, and they almost
      never tried to pull you over.

      What did concern Zhu and the others, though, were the speed cameras mounted
      unobtrusively on poles in the median. If you went too fast past a camera, it
      snapped your picture, and the ticket arrived in the mail. Simple as that.
      Zhu knew the location of most of the cameras along his normal routes around
      Beijing, but whenever he headed afield, the bills really piled up -
      sometimes $70 or $80 a month.

      His solution was friends in the police department. They had given him a
      special red license plate that was affixed beneath his regular one; he
      believed this stopped a lot of the tickets in their tracks. But Zhu - like
      many others on the trip - was also intrigued by a device in the Nissan
      S.U.V. of Li Xingjie, 42, the leader of the Fangshan businessmen's group.
      The short, bald man was widely envied among members of the tour for his
      radar detector, reputed to detect not only radar but also cameras. I joined
      him one afternoon, and he proudly demonstrated: the rumors were true, and
      the device also gave advance notice of tollbooths and service areas. Made in
      Taiwan, the detector cost Li $350 and, as it stated in English on its
      bottom, detected "all speed equipment on mainland!" He used to pay about
      $1,250 annually in fines, but no longer did.

      "But isn't this kind of seditious?" I asked via Li Lu. "Isn't this Taiwan
      helping to undermine the laws of the mainland?"

      On the contrary, Li said, "this detector helps me obey the law. You have to
      obey laws. We have to obey the government!"

      I wasn't sure whether he was sincere. As we blew by an aging police cruiser
      at over 100 (the cruiser, by my reckoning, was traveling closer to 50), I
      asked him to help me unravel more mysteries of Chinese highway law
      enforcement. "Why isn't anybody worried about those police? Why don't they
      chase anybody and give out tickets?"

      That's just not how it's done here, Li said. Occasionally you were hit with
      an expressway fine when you stopped at the next tollbooth, but ordinarily,
      unless there had been an accident or some other irregularity, cops wouldn't
      chase you; tickets just arrived in the mail. Police cars were slow, but the
      mails were reliable.

      He portrayed himself as very straight: "Twenty years ago, I was driving a
      tractor - I was a model peasant! There were almost no cars in China. I
      didn't learn to drive until 1988.

      "Under Deng Xiaoping, I got lucky because I was uneducated. Educated people
      think in traditional ways, but Deng said we should take chances." He did,
      and now he owns the Beijing Fangshan Banbidian Cement Factory, which he
      started when he was 28. Li Xingjie was mild-mannered and unassuming, but
      when I later showed Li Lu his business card, she was in awe: "This cellphone
      prefix means he has had the phone a long time - since they were really
      expensive. He is very, very rich!"

      I considered this as the group reconvened for the last time, just on the
      other side of a glitzy new toll plaza, its lines limned in neon that had
      been illuminated as the sun started down. All of the cars in our group - and
      the majority of cars you see in China, period - were recent models. Almost
      all the wealth of the drivers was first-generation. The digital cameras, the
      shiny wristwatches, all of it where I come from said nouveau riche. But the
      pejorative back home is the normative here: practically every wealthy person
      is nouveau riche, so the idea is meaningless.

      The more instructive comparison, as we stood on this fancy bit of highway
      surrounded by rice fields and, here and there, people at work in them, was
      with the rural poor, the peasantry, the hundreds of millions of Chinese who
      do not yet (and, you imagine, will not in their lifetimes) share this
      prosperity. Many villages still are not connected to roads at all. When an
      expressway just south of here was completed last year, I was told sotto voce
      in Beijing, a series of demonstrations by peasants at a toll plaza delayed
      its opening. They were angry because the road had taken their land, and
      this, we are now seeing, is the story all over China: the government itself
      counted nearly 80,000 mass protests in 2005 alone. The country's economic
      growth is fantastic, the urban atmosphere heady. . .but then you see through
      the glass the peasants just in from the countryside, burlap bags at their
      feet, looking utterly from another planet, representatives of hundreds of
      millions of others, almost standing still while Zhu and Li zoom on by.

      We spent our last night in a four-star high-rise hotel in Luoyang. By the
      time I made it to our room with my suitcase, Zhu had already welcomed two
      sleek female "massage therapists" to our quarters; they were perched
      glamorously on the edge of my bed - legs crossed, lips glossed, high heels
      dangling - and beckoned me to join them. Zhu chortled with glee at my
      reticence, and I wondered which part of car travel he enjoyed most: the
      hours behind the wheel or the hours just after? Certainly, he seemed to take
      full advantage of all of them.

      The end was anticlimactic: everyone was heading back on the same expressway,
      and Beijing was less than a tank of gas away, so there was no further need
      to stick together. Chatter on the CB dropped off slowly until the radio was
      utterly quiet, and in terms of its group dimension anyway, the trip was

      Li Lu seemed pleased as Zhu's Hyundai eased into the perpetual traffic jam
      that is Beijing. She confessed that her friends were amazed she had gone on
      a trip like this: "I'm just a Beijing girl, a taxi girl!" - not a sporting,
      auto-club type. But Zhu seemed a bit disappointed to be off the open road.
      He wanted to treat us to dinner at a favorite noodle restaurant near the
      city center, but first we had to get there.

      Creeping along on the highway, we talked about how the Beijing government
      was trying to control the huge new popularity of cars: one solution to the
      growing chaos of the streets has been to severely restrict motorcycle use in
      the city. Zhu thought that was better than Shanghai's fix: trying to cut
      down on car ownership by setting a high price (presently almost $5,000) on
      car registration. Trying to ease traffic and cut down on accidents, Shanghai
      had even banned bicycles from many main streets, news that still amazes me.

      A policeman friend of Zhu's met us at the restaurant and, in fact, even
      picked up the tab. (Zhu's rapport with the department was quite impressive.)
      I asked him about the street racing I had heard was becoming a problem in
      the city. Yes, he said, he had heard of it but had not seen it himself, yet.
      Zhu looked a bit too interested in the subject.

      In the coming days, Zhu would entertain me and others at the
      restaurant-hotel he ran as a hobby on the outskirts of Beijing; likewise,
      Zhou the lawyer would treat a group of us, including the Wangs of the
      Citroën, to a fabulous dinner on trendy Houhai Lake. Clearly, nobody wanted
      the trip to end. ("Was it really that relaxing?" I had asked several of
      them, many times, after 12-hour days at the wheel; all had sworn that it

      An ebullient atmosphere surrounds the automobile in China. You can see the
      excitement continuing, even growing, as more people buy cars: China now has
      fewer than seven of them for every thousand people, roughly the same level
      as the United States had in 1915. Everyone expects the ownership rate to
      keep growing, which means there could be 130 million vehicles on China's
      roads by 2020. By 2030, according to one estimate, there could be as many as
      in the United States.

      It is reminiscent of a fading romance in American life, this crush on the
      automobile, the thrill of car ownership, and it is fun to see. But in this
      area, American culture seems more mature than Chinese culture, and with the
      benefit of hindsight and statistics, it is not hard to spot a multicar
      pileup in the making. While I was in Beijing, the journal Nature reported
      that the city's air pollution was much worse than previously thought.
      Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide have increased 50 percent over the past
      10 years, and the buildup is accelerating. According to The Wall Street
      Journal, Beijing's sulfur-dioxide levels in 2004 were more than double New
      York's, and airborne-particulate levels more than six times as high. Last
      year China enacted its first comprehensive emissions law, but it is expected
      to have little effect on the transport sector's copious carbon-dioxide
      emissions, which by 2030 are expected to exceed those of the United States,
      the world's largest producer. The nation's growing demands for gasoline make
      it increasingly our competitor for the finite global supply; by 2030,
      according to the International Energy Agency, China may be importing as much
      oil as we do.

      On the snail-paced drive back into Beijing, Zhu had passed through a zone on
      the edge of town that had been bulldozed and was being rebuilt as
      upper-income, car-friendly suburbs. In fact, this was happening around
      cities all over China: new gated communities, new themed enclaves, all for
      the car-owning class. What was conspicuously missing was a corresponding
      investment in mass transit, in public spaces and public access. And, in
      heavy traffic at the end of a tiring trip, it was easy to worry that the
      Chinese, rather than charting an innovative, alternate route into the
      automotive era, were on their way down a road that looks a little too

      Ted Conover, a distinguished writer in residence at New York University, is
      at work on a book about roads.


    • Simon Baddeley
      A grim and instructive read - that piece by Ted Conover It set off some grim musing on the unshared condition. I came across a book the other day - Jan
      Message 2 of 2 , Jul 9, 2006
      • 0 Attachment
        A grim and instructive read - that piece by Ted Conover

        It set off some grim musing on the unshared condition. I came across a book
        the other day - Jan Needle's 'Wildwood' - which tells the wonderful tale of
        'The Wind in the Willows' from the perspective of those who live or try to
        live in the Wild Wood.

        I can hardly imagine the population of any developing country not being
        seduced by these insanely unsustainable transitions, attracted to
        circumstances where untold opportunities seem to open up for individual
        enjoyment of material wealth.

        As a member of several generations of the river bank class in "The Wind in
        the Willows", one part of me has resented the incursion of the stoats into
        my privileged idyll which, whether it was walking (what is now called
        rambling), motoring, yachting, travelling (We are travellers, they are
        tourists). These recreations were as good, as they were for those who lived
        on 'the riverbank' (messing about in boats for example) because the greater
        part of the population had to give so much of their time to simply

        "They" stayed out of "our" space, "our" consciousness and, in many cases,
        "our" consciences. "We", "our" and "they" are political pronouns often used
        as though they were politically neutral terms.

        Bertrand Russell said the central dilemma of redistributive politics is that
        "you can ruin absolutely anything by making it available to everybody." In
        my childhood and much of my later life I dipped regularly into the world of
        badger, rat, toad and mole but I have also striven to vote their/my world

        I have regrets. My wife and I had two weeks on our own in North Brittany a
        few days ago, lying on pleasant beaches and strolling the rocky coastline
        but even though we were outside school holiday windows there wasn't a
        landscape whose serenity wasn't interrupted by the close and distant noise
        of exploding fossil fuel and the clear sky overhead was streaked from
        horizon to horizon by contrails. The stoat population has been rightly
        liberated and is on the move in search of riverbanks.

        I was inclined to A.A.Milne's view that: "One does not argue about The Wind
        in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love,
        and, if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man
        tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test
        of character. We can't criticize it, because it is criticizing us. But I
        must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don't be so
        ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on
        the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself.
        You may be worthy: I don't know. But it is you who are on trial."

        Well yes and no. Milne and Graham (and other Corinthians) may both have
        written to exorcise the horrors of the Great War and did it with largely
        unsentimental genius, but neither so far as I know could have quite made the
        psychological leap to sharing the world with the stoats once they rose above
        the stews of the Wild Wood. Only Toad might have come to play Folsom and if
        he had the best song in his set would surely have contained a chorus of
        "poop poop".


        Simon (Badger)

        Capitalist Roaders

        By TED CONOVER
        Published: July 2, 2006

        The more instructive comparison, as we stood on this fancy bit of highway
        surrounded by rice fields and, here and there, people at work in them, was
        with the rural poor, the peasantry, the hundreds of millions of Chinese who
        do not yet (and, you imagine, will not in their lifetimes) share this
        prosperity. Many villages still are not connected to roads at all. When an
        expressway just south of here was completed last year, I was told sotto voce
        in Beijing, a series of demonstrations by peasants at a toll plaza delayed
        its opening. They were angry because the road had taken their land, and
        this, we are now seeing, is the story all over China: the government itself
        counted nearly 80,000 mass protests in 2005 alone. The country's economic
        growth is fantastic, the urban atmosphere heady. . .but then you see through
        the glass the peasants just in from the countryside, burlap bags at their
        feet, looking utterly from another planet, representatives of hundreds of
        millions of others, almost standing still while Zhu and Li zoom on by.
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