PEKING DAYS; Driven up the Chinese wall

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The Independent Online
Peking drivers woke up yesterday to discover that, in this supposed last bastion of Communism, some cars are more equal than others.

Let me declare an interest. the Independent's modest, Chinese-made 998cc car makes living immeasurably easier, even if it does start shaking uncontrollably above 50mph. So it was with some irritation that I read in yesterday morning's newspapers that from Monday, jeeps, private light buses and mini-buses, and cars with engines smaller than 1,000cc will be allowed on the road only on alternate days. My car has a licence plate with an odd number, so it will be permitted on the city's roads only on odd-numbered days. And similarly with even-numbered plates.

It is true that something urgently needs to be done about the jams caused by the 980,000 vehicles in this city. According to the China Daily, the average speed of vehicles on the Second and Third Ring Roads has fallen to 20mph; on some sections it is just 7.5mph. But one might think the answer would be to improve the appallingly over-crowded buses. Or to curb the huge over-supply of taxis. Or to encourage companies to use mini-buses rather than cars to transport their staff. Or to stress the environmental benefits of small cars rather than the fancy imported high-speed models driven by the cadres and officials (who are not supposed to have imported cars anyway).

But this is China. Thus the Peking Municipal Public Security Bureau has decided to target private light buses and mini-buses, saying that their "empty-seat rate is as high as 41 per cent". Forget the fact that this equates to a lot more bums on seats per metre of road space than in the average Peking Mercedes. Also included will be the types of cars most usually driven by foreigners. As well as my nifty Xiali brand with its under-sized engine, the definition of "jeeps" is specifically deemed to cover the big Cherokee station-wagons used by many foreigners.

Excluded are public security, armed police, and army vehicles - which together account for a fair proportion of the fanciest saloon cars on the road. Also excepted are buses, licensed public mini-buses, and taxis.

The city's new devotion to traffic management got off to quite a promising new start at the end of last year when thousands of traffic policemen metamorphosed overnight into human robots. "New behaviour standards" were introduced, and police whose direction gestures, service attitude, or deportment did not conform could be reported by the citizens.

The Peking Evening Daily announced last month that a traffic policeman working at the busy Wangfujing street must every day make 5,880 hand signals, and 3,360 turns on his central podium. "After work, some traffic policemen get such pains in their legs that they have to rely on the banisters to go upstairs. Traffic policemen whose arms swell are everywhere," the newspaper said.

Tales of heroism abound: Zhang Chungui needed a skin transplant operation because of a work-induced infection, but went straight from hospital to his traffic directing post; a feverish Wang Long had been in hospital on an intravenous drip but returned immediately to duties. Traffic policemen have even been neglecting their wives. Li Jingcheng's wife said: "Sometimes Jingcheng is so busy that he forgets to take care of our home. I was very angry and swore never to marry a traffic policeman in my afterlife."

Ridiculous though the propaganda was, the traffic on the main streets did seem to start flowing rather more smoothly. There was another great leap forward when, at the beginning of this year, the regulations were altered to "prevent traffic police from fining people randomly". On-the- spot fines were discontinued, and penalties now have to be paid into the bank.

Now we are informed of 12 new "reform measures" for traffic management.

After howls of protest, the Public Security Bureau said that it might be possible to buy a special pass which would allow one's car on the road every day after all.

I'm pinning my hopes on Chinese entrepreneurship, which usually steps into any new breach when there is a profit to be made. In a country where counterfeit goods are available on every street corner, it should not be long before I can buy a set of fake car licence plates - with an even number.

Teresa Poole