Beijing: “Qiguai. It means strange,” my Chinese teacher said, repeating the new word again so that I could grasp its rising-then-falling pronunciation.
“What did you find qiguai when you first arrived in Beijing?”
“The taxi drivers,” I responded, without hesitation. The teacher giggled as my classmate/wife tried to explain that Canada’s rules of the road are somewhat different than those in China, primarily because, well, there are rules and people follow them. Getting into a Beijing taxi is often akin to taking a seatbeltless ride on the Zipper, or one of those other rides that tour Canada’s exhibitions each summer.
The only thing more dangerous than being in a Beijing taxi is daring to cross the street in front of one. After 10 months of living here, I’ve concluded that the rules of the Beijing road are roughly as follows:
- Trucks and buses are supreme, and can pretty much drive any where and any way they choose. Bus drivers may be public servants in other countries, but in Beijing they’re threats to public safety.
- Cars come next, with bigger cars clearly having the right to force themselves into any lane they choose, even if occupied by a smaller vehicle. This may be a Communist state in name, but there’s a rigid caste system when it comes to travelling on paved surfaces.
- Bicycles and those old-fashioned enough to still ride them are expected to scatter out of the way of anything with a motor.
- Pedestrians are the bottom of the ladder, and enjoy the exact opposite of the right of way. Even if you’re already in the intersection, and the walk signal is green, you’re expected to dive out of the way of any car that happens to turn right through the crosswalk. If pedestrians really needed to get where they are going, they’d be in a car, preferably a large one.
It really is that bad. In his farewell to China blog entitled “How I survived China” James Fallows, the outgoing correspondent from The Atlantic magazine, writes about the advice he got from a Chinese doctor: “The most important ‘medical’ step you can take is to put on a seat belt in a car, wear a helmet on a bike, and run for your life in crosswalks,” the doctor told him.
Fallows goes on: “For the foreign diplomatic corps, the leading cause of death is traffic accidents. I worried every day about being mowed down by a bus, since they don’t stop at lights. My wife was run over in Beijing by a motor scooter that was going the opposite way down an eight-lane one-way road and was running a red light too. She’s fine now; the driver roared away, still against traffic, as soon as he climbed back on the bike.”
No one who lives in Beijing could have been surprised by that story (my parents are still recovering from the shock of a minor accident that occurred earlier this month when our car was struck by a driver backing down the wrong lane of a highway near the Great Wall). But sitting in our taxi this afternoon as it idled in thick Sunday traffic on the way home from our language lesson, it struck me that the drivers aren’t the problem – it’s the police who do so little to enforce the rules of the road that actually do exist.
It’s the oddest thing about living in this still-authoritarian state. The police are ubiquitous and absent at the same time. They stand on street corners (or nap in their cars) as cars recklessly run red lights right in front of them. It’s little surprise that – according to the official Xinhua news agency – China had the highest rate of road accident deaths in the world in 2007, at 5.1 per 100,000 cars.
Part of the problem is corruption. According to the Shanghai Oriental Morning Post, 47.2 per cent of all the new drivers they surveyed paid a bribe (the average price was 502 RMB, or about $75) to get their licenses rather than take the official drivers’ test. (Though could you pass the English-language version? Here it is.)
To my eyes, another factor seems to be that no one has told the policemen that they’re supposed to do police-y things like protect the public. During the National Day celebrations earlier this month, armed police were deployed on nearly every street corner to ensure the day passed smoothly and no one would do something outlandish like wave a Tibetan flag.
But that didn’t mean that any of them would lift an arm to help get snarled traffic moving again, or intervene to question a taxi driver who sped through a crowd of terrified pedestrians without so much as using a turn signal to warn anyone of his intention to do so.
The latter example is something that happens frequently, and right in front of the police who stroll about my east Beijing neighbourhood. (Nor do the same police ever intervene to break up the obvious drug-pushing and prostitution that takes place on the corners they patrol, but that’s another blog.)
But try walking through the streets with a T-shirt reading “One-party dictatorship is a disaster” (as lawyer Liu Shihui did recently in Guangzhou) and the police tend to move quickly and decisively.
Now I’ve never been entrusted with running a one-party police state, but as a pedestrian living in the capital of one, it’s all just a little qiguai.