China's rich too fast, too furious
By Stephanie Wang

CHANGSHA, China - With the explosive growth of motor vehicle sales in recent years, traffic accidents in China have also skyrocketed. So much so that the Middle Kingdom has become a world leader in deadly traffic accidents, according to official statistics. Attracting even greater attention from the public, however, is the social injustice behind these traffic accidents.

There were some 30 million cars on the road in the country last year, less than 5% of the world's total estimated total of more than 600 million). According to Xinhua News Agency, there were more than 320,000 traffic accidents in China in 2007, with 81,649 people killed. As such, China's death rate due to traffic accidents
is six times the world average and accounts for 20% of the world total.

While some may argue that it is inevitable that the number of traffic accidents will grow as the number of vehicles hitting the roads soars, there may be no positive connection between them. During the past two decades, the number of motor vehicles in the United States jumped by 73%, yet the number of people killed in road accidents dropped by 27.5%. In Japan, the number of cars grew threefold, yet casualties due to traffic accidents dropped 55%.

So why is China's headed in a different? It is not due to a lack of traffic regulations, but rather because these rules are often deliberately ignored, particularly by the rich, privileged and powerful. The social injustice behind this issue has led to an increase in concern from the public.

There is a historical episode that illustrates the situation. In 1901, a provincial governor of the Qing Dynasty offered a car imported from the US to Empress Cixi as a gift for her 66th birthday. This was one of the first cars the Chinese had ever seen. So one day, a happy Cixi ordered her driver to taxi her around in the Forbidden City.

To show appreciation, she rewarded the driver with a big bowl of rice wine before the journey. Overwhelmed by the unexpected favor, the driver quickly emptied the bowl and started the car. Suddenly a small eunuch ran in front of the vehicle. The drunk driver forgot where the brake was and the car ran over the eunuch and killed him.

Needless to say, nothing happened to the driver as a eunuch's life was worthless. Later, some ministers told Cixi that it was improper for the driver to sit side-by-side with Her Majesty. The empress then ordered the driver's seat removed and demanded the driver operate the car while dropped down on his knees.

From this some Chinese media commentators have inferred, jokingly, that the bad habit of drunk driving may have historical roots. Still, the story serves as a apt example that - even today - any rule can be bent by the privileged and powerful.

While saying that drunk-driving is a tradition may be an insult to the Chinese, it is true that operating motor vehicles while under the influence is a problem that runs rampant in the country. According to the Ministry of Public Security, it is the top killer during traffic accidents.

Although no statistics are available to indicate who the major offenders are, the general public tends to blame the rich and the powerful for dangerous driving behavior, specifically drunk-driving.

Private cars are quite popular in major Chinese cities nowadays, and luxurious sedans are still associated with social status. For example, the BMW brand is lovingly called Bao Ma, or Precious Horse, and BMW sedans are popular among the newly rich. But in recent years, Bao Ma has almost become a synonym for "traffic accident". For instance, if you key in the words "Bao Ma" and "traffic accident" on Chinese search engine Baidu.com, you will receive 6,670,000 entries.

To name just a few cases from these entries, in Harbin city in October 2003, a victim was crushed and dragged to death by a BMW and another 12 injured. In Changsha city in 2004, a female driver injured seven with a BMW in March and another seven with a Mercedes-Benz in July. In Yiwu in 2005, a deputy of the Municipal People's Congress drove a BMW while drunk and beat up intervening police officers. In Wenzhou in 2006, a BMW driver caused five accidents in just an hour. In Beijing in 2007, a 17-year-old hit-and-run driver showed not a single trace of repentance when caught. Last year, there were more than a dozen cases of traffic accidents reported, including deadly ones, caused by Bao Ma sedans.

When browsing such stories this author finds that even at a standstill Bao Ma drivers can hurt people. An onlooker was punched (Beijing 2006), another slapped (Beijing 2007), and still another beaten up and given a cerebral hemorrhage (Xiamen 2008).

It's no wonder then that in China "watch out for Bao Ma or you may get killed" and "stay away from Bao Ma or you may be kicked" have become popular sayings among Chinese bloggers.

Certainly, it is impossible, and unfair to say, that all or most of China's deadly traffic accidents have been caused by BMW sedans. But the fact that such cases are highlighted by the media is quite revealing.

A sociologist from the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences says the backlash toward BMW reflects the strong feelings of public disgust stemming from the arrogance of the newly rich and the privileged. Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor with Renmin University, argues that such public feelings are quite reasonable and understandable. For one thing, behind the wheel of a BMW car there is often an arrogant and bullying driver.

The tragedy in Harbin in 2003 is a telling example. The enraged female driver injured 12 people, crushed another woman's head and dragged her for about seven meters, simply because her BMW got scratched by the woman's farm truck that was dodging a van. After the accident, the driver's husband, head of a group company, hurried to the scene, comforting her: "No big deal, a million yuan will suffice to settle the case."

According to Chinese law, drunk-driving is punishable by a fine of up to 500 yuan (US$73) and suspension of the driver's license for up to three months. In some cases, apprehended BMW drivers have reportedly laughed, "OK, give me the fine. I have enough money for it."

Even in more serious accidents, the rich believe their money can fix their mistakes while the privileged and powerful can settle such cases with their connections. Professor Kong Qingdong of Peking University has remarked publicly: "[Beijing's policy of] 'letting some people get rich first' certainly does not mean to let such immoral guys get rich first".

The public antipathy toward the newly rich also manifests the country's dangerously growing wealth gap. China's Gini coefficient - a measure of statistical dispersion - was 0.47 in 2007, well above the international alert line of 0.4. Even Ma Kai, the former director of the National Development and Reform Commission, admitted the country's income disparity is widening. Many people believe that some wealth collection is associated with official corruption. Professor Mao Shoulong of Renmin University says the general dislike for the rich could be better interpreted as a "hatred of unfairness".

Behind the traffic accidents there is the issue of social injustice which is a major source of growing public discontent. According to Professor Qing Lianbin of the Central Party School, such a mentality will definitely affect social harmony.

To build a harmonious society - by no means an easy ride - is a goal set by President Hu Jintao, who has called for concerted efforts. The rich should certainly be more socially responsible. To start with, they should drive their luxurious sedans more sensibly. Only then may China take a step closer to social harmony.

Stephanie Wang is a freelance writer based in Changsha, China.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)