The traumas of age and "innocence"
It's been a traumatic day for me so far, with two incidents that I can only hope do not set a pattern for the rest of the week.
I was walking in Beijing's Liangmaqiao district this morning, when I came to a busy road interchange. There in one of the lanes was a girl lying face down in the road with a couple of cars stopped haphazardly beside her, while other drivers honked their horns and tried to edge past the accident, making it perfectly clear how much of a nuisance they viewed this girl to be. The girl was surrounded by a dozen or so people, all talking at the tops of their voices.
I hadn't seen the accident happen, but I have to say my only surprise is that I don't see more incidents like this every day that I walk in the capital.
I never fail to get both annoyed and incredibly frustrated by the ever-present car-first mentality whenever I'm trying to cross a road here in Beijing. As far as I understand it, the Chinese traffic rules are no different from those of most other countries. A driver turning right at a red light should yield to pedestrians and cyclists, especially if they have a green light "allowing them" to cross. And at pedestrian crossings marked with zebra stripes, drivers are likewise legally obliged to stop and let pedestrians and cyclists cross.
But you will never see this happen here. As far as the forces of law and order are concerned, it would appear that you can run red lights to you heart's content!
Taxi and bus drivers I find to be the worst offenders in this regard. They will commonly aim their vehicles directly at pedestrians in order to get them to move out of the way more quickly, while honking their horns in an aggressive fashion, even if the pedestrians have right of way. The result is that it is all too common to find that the green pedestrian light has turned back to red before one can even set foot safely off the pavement to cross the road.
It's more like a game of He-who-dares-wins, where the dominant person ends up with right of way, and many is the time I find myself shouting at some lunatic driver, pointing at "my" green light that he chooses to ignore. (An umbrella held purposefully pointing forward is a great remedy for this, by the way, as most Beijingers love their cars too much to risk getting the tiniest of scratches on the paintwork!)
Other "rules of the road" too are widely ignored. You always get to see cars driving in the bike lanes, or across pavements; people writing text messages or having intense phone calls while driving their vehicles; tailgating dangerously close to the vehicle ahead; changing lanes and turning without use of signals; and cutting up other motorists. The common perception among Chinese motorists appears to be that each and every one of them is the most important user of the road.
Motorists in the United States and northern Europe, on the other hand, are often described as "predictably law-abiding", with the vast majority of drivers in the US, especially, sickeningly polite. There, rules of the road are strictly enforced, with fines and outright driving bans meted out to traffic law violators, while repeated violations lead to an increase in insurance premiums, which are already high to begin with.
However, I would argue that the majority of Chinese are not necessarily selfish. Look at the way they behave on public transport, for instance. The moment an old person or a pregnant woman, or even a woman with a child gets on board, there are countless young people jumping up and offering their seats. There is no hesitation in this. It is the norm and happens on practically every journey I take on public transport. This is something you will rarely see in Europe.
The biggest problem in China is that so many of the drivers have only recently got their licenses. Until not that long ago, purchasing a car was a luxury that few could afford or have the opportunity to do; and now those that have "made the grade" – or have been lucky enough to have won the right to buy a car – regard it as a status symbol marking them out to be extra special in some way, whereas in Europe and America it really is no big deal to own a car. In other countries people grow up watching their parents drive, and by the time they get behind the wheel they have a good idea of what driving should look like. In China, with private cars being a relatively new phenomenon, there are few role models for newbies.
But a bigger problem, I feel, is that traffic laws seem hardly ever to be enforced by the traffic police, if at all; and without such enforcement, I can't see much changing in the way people drive in the future. In Hong Kong, you will get slapped with an instant fine for the most minor traffic indiscretion; but not here in China's mainland. Given the current state of China's drivers, how on earth will the younger generation ever improve their driving standards if they are learning from the current generation? Imagine - not only a city full of learner drivers, but learner drivers who have never seen examples of good driving!
So it's a sobering thought that according to official statistics, the number of fatal accidents per car in China is 55 times higher than in Japan, while the death rate from accidents is over five times higher in China than in the United States, which has around 40 percent more cars!
I mentioned earlier on that I had had two traumatic incidents happen to me this morning. And in a funny kind of way, they are almost related, though at totally opposite ends of the spectrum. I was traveling on the bus a little later on, returning to the office. As is normal, all the buses were pretty full at this time, with standing room only. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder and a pretty young girl was offering me her seat. I declined her invitation, but she insisted. Should I feel grateful or insulted, I was wondering to myself. I mean, I'm only 62. I don't feel old (though maybe it is high time I gave my hair a little more "maintenance"?) Did she take me for a geriatric? How old is "old" anyway? I guess I still have a lot to learn about the Chinese and their values.