China – Under The Hood: Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil

Yesterday’s autumnal afternoon was typical of late: drizzling, murky and, if you found yourself in the middle of Hangzhou’s snarling traffic, chaotic. Thanks to a very impressive and convenient public bicycle system, I was cycling along minding my own business when, without warning, a real nasty piece of work, the local equivalent of a Hell’s Angel on an electric-bicycle, the ultimate street menace, tried to squeeze in front of the metre distance separating my pedal bicycle and the plastic bollard dividing our bicycle lane from the regular traffic lane. Unluckily for me his sudden, impulsive, totally devoid of conscience, maneuver was never going to work and I came off much worse in what was another surreal Hangzhou moment.

Within a flash there’s spread-eagled me and a mangled bicycle sprawled on the grimy black surface. The first thought to enter my mind was whether I should get up and strangle him? Meanwhile, the peloton of E-bikes and bicycles behind me had stopped. Waiting in readiness:

Urchin, with the jumpy smile, and everyone else from ‘rent a crowd’, was impassively staring at me waiting for me to pick myself up. Not one helping hand 漠不关心 (‘mo bu guan xin’ or “completely unmoved or indifferent) as I lay there.

Amid the spectators and the ‘raring to go’ din of more and more impatient bicycle bells, honking e-bike and motorised tricycle horns and blackboard screeching brakes no more than two or three metres behind me, I could hear the repeated words “你看他是老外!”, or simply “老外!” (‘ni kan ta shi lao wai’ a derogatory term for “foreigner”, “look he’s a foreigner!”).

As soon as I managed to shove the bicycle a few inches out of the way with my foot the horde was once again on the move, cautiously filing through the narrow gap I had created, all wearing the same sheepish gaze I have witnessed so many times while living in China: The ‘Three Wise Monkeys’ code of silence ― ‘Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.’ What happens to a stranger outside their immediate comfort zone of family and friends is none of their business, so best to flee rather than be blamed for any injuries the “老外” lao wai may have sustained.

No doubt I’d be the topic of conversation amid the cacophony of slurps over their next bowl of noodles. Now looking back, I am rather surprised that for added conversational embellishment one of the quick thinking onlookers didn’t have the ‘cop on’ to take out her iPhone and snap a photo of me sprawled on roadside with wrecked bicycle. On second thoughts such an exercise would have risked losing the Teacup Poodle peeking out of her designer handbag. In any case, I seriously doubt that any conversation about me would have decried the pathetic apathy or laziness of the renmin who left me on the ground, not bothering to offer any assistance: 漠不关心.

China Under The Hood - Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil - Something like 1,000,000 electric bicycles stalk the streets of Hangzhou
Something like 1,000,000 electric bicycles stalk the streets of Hangzhou

As for me I finally made my way to the hospital.

I couldn’t wrap up this exposé from the harmonious society of Hangzhou without a special mention about local hospitality as witnessed yesterday: Mind numbing, really touching indeed. It certainly gives a special resonance to the recent incident down in Foshan City where little Wang Yue was run over by two vans and ignored by 18 passers-by http://wp.me/p15Yzr-jJ.

The ethic of the jungle ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,’ looking out for yourself, may have been expedient in the dark days of Mao Zedong’s revolution. However, here in a China subjected to dramatic economic and social changes in nearly all aspects of life on an unprecedented scale, the gazes of indifference and lack of compassion for a fellow human being, as witnessed yesterday, patently reveal a public engulfed by a great moral vacuum, empty of imagination, hope and of any future… not really the hallmarks of a harmonious society.

Traffic carnage: China’s roadkill

According to the Public Security Bureau (PSB) only just over 200 pedestrians, drivers, cyclists and others people died every day last year on China’s roads (The World Health Organization’s approximation is close to double this figure).  Even the minimum 73,484 deaths (out of 265,204 officially investigated traffic accidents) in 2008 (compared to just under 82,000 road kills in 2007) as published by the PSB is equivalent to the population of my home town of Dun Laoghaire being wiped out three times over.  That’s quite a sobering thought.

90,000 people died in the Sichuan Earthquake.

The most common accident scenes in a city like Hangzhou are of a crumpled bicycle / electric bike and rider lying under a car (invariably a taxi) or bus. My, first impression regarding the accident shown in the photos below, which I witnessed yesterday, was that there were no fatalities because I didn’t see an ambulance. Actually, the cyclist was removed in an unmarked van…. straight to the mortuary.

On the motorways the culprit is usually a truck (fuel tanker), while in the countryside an accident scene is likely to involve a packed long-distance sleeper bus.

And the outlook…? 

  • China accounts for 10% of global car sales and is the fastest-growing market in the world
  • 19 out of 1,000 Chinese drive a car, whereas in America some 780 people out of 1,000 do
  • There are 30 million cars in China today. By 2020, that figure could rise to 140 million cars alone (that is a lot of carbon monoxide).
  • There are over 165 million licensed motor vehicles in China, 90% of which were cars and motorcycles.
  • Over 18 million cars were privately owned.
  • Beijing has close to 3 million cars. Every day over 1,000 new vehicles appear on the streets of Beijing. To cope with the rising car numbers 1,000,000 more parking spaces are needed.
  • China had no motorways in 1988; it now has 41,000 km, the second-largest network in the world after the United States.

….. With such breakneck motorisation the outlook looks grim.
China's Roadkill Fatal Traffic AccidentsChina's Roadkill Fatal Traffic AccidentsChina's Roadkill Fatal Traffic AccidentsChina's Roadkill Fatal Traffic Accidents