Peking Diary: Welcome to the wheelclamps

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The Independent Online
THE wheelclamp has finally reached Peking - and about time too. The hope is that this will put the brakes on the more dastardly tactics used by the traffic police.

Last June, for instance, the Independent's modest run-around disappeared from outside one of the city's big hotels. Pavement hawkers quickly confirmed that a police pick-up had made off with the car. But how to find it? There was no phone number to call, and no central depot. So there was no alternative to touring the city, from one police car pound to another, hoping to spot the vehicle. Four hours later, the car turned up - dumped by the police in the car park of a four-star hotel.

An even more fiendish strategy was introduced late last year, probably because the gridlocked city streets were becoming increasingly tiresome for police pick-up trucks. Returning to the car, laden with shopping, one found the windscreen plastered with stuck-on notices. These informed the hapless car-owner that the traffic police had removed the front and rear number plates, which were being held for ransom at some distant office.

So the wheelclamp is to be welcomed. At least they have to come to you from now on. According to the Peking Traffic Control Bureau, however, the clamp is still in its trial phase because of unspecified "minor mechanical flaws in its design". For the time being, the most reliable strategy in dealing with the traffic police remains the oldest - opening one's wallet and extracting large numbers of used notes.

WINTER lays low most Pekingers at some point with a bout of flu. So I was fortunate to receive a visit recently from Zhao Yong, a geologist from the State Seismological Bureau, who has turned his attentions to curing the common cold. He and his doctor wife have invented a contraption which, they claim, can sort out sore throats, runny noses, and feverish headaches.

The new machine is basically a plug-in red baseball cap. One puts it on, plugs it into the mains, and a thermoelectric ceramic plate embedded in the top of the cap starts to warm up. Under this has been placed a sponge soaked in a pungent potion, a sweet-smelling liquid of ledebouriella root, upleurum root, honeysuckle flower, and forsythia fruit. One then sits backs and gently cooks the top of one's head for up to an hour. "When you watch television, the effect is the best," said Mr Zhao.

According to Chinese medicine, a cold is caused by an "exopathogenic wind" getting into one's body. "Because it is light, it travels up and gathers in your head," said Mr Zhao. Heating up the head with the potion speeds up the circulation and opens the capillaries, so that the "wind" can escape.

If it was this simple, why had no one thought of this before? "That's a very good question," said Mr Zhao. "With the development of science and technology, people tend to worship medicine and injections. Maybe our cap looks simple, but the components are not simple at all." The cap is now on offer for pounds 15 in at least one department store, but sales are disappointing. I suggest that the secret to commercial success might be as a baldness cure. "Yes, it stimulates the circulation in the scalp, so can help the hair grow," said Mr Zhao.

NO ONE ever said journalism in an authoritarian, one-party, media-controlled country would be easy. But it is at least becoming increasingly profitable. The British Council recently organised a press conference to publicise the arrival in Peking this week of the National Theatre which is staging Othello as part of the "Britain in China" year. It is all part of the warming relations between London and Peking.

The Independent's Chinese assistant duly turned up for the briefing, in the company of about 20 journalists from local publications.

A press kit was handed out, with fulsome details about the theatre company and the play. But the best going-home present was not revealed until the end when the journalists were each handed a white envelope. A theatre ticket, wondered my assistant? Even better. A crisp 100 yuan (pounds 8) note - not to be sniffed at in a city where the average weekly wage is little more than that.

Inquiries were made to the British Embassy as to whether this was British taxpayers' money being used to buy favourable coverage of Othello in the local press. Absolutely not, was the reply. The press conference had been jointly arranged by the China Performing Arts Agency, and it had secretly organised the bungs for Chinese hacks. Such pay-offs are routine nowadays within the Chinese media, but are rarely offered to foreign journalists. So when the office is strapped for cash, one's Chinese assistant is duly dispatched to do the rounds.