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Beijing targets those who cross the street 'with Chinese characteristics'

Beijing's 'strike hard' campaign aims to tame the anarchy that reigns at crosswalks and intersections.  Our correspondent's take: 'Good luck.'

By Staff Writer / December 11, 2012

Firefighters march in a line crossing the street on Tiananmen Square, next to the Great Hall of the People, the venue of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, November 14.

David Gray/Reuters/File

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Beijing

Beijing’s finest, ever vigilant on the law-and-order front, have set themselves a challenging new task: to eradicate the phenomenon known as “crossing the road, Chinese-style.”

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Beijing Bureau Chief

Peter Ford is The Christian Science Monitor’s Beijing Bureau Chief. He covers news and features throughout China and also makes reporting trips to Japan and the Korean peninsula.

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A new “strike hard” campaign, launched last week, is aimed at “bringing order to traffic and security” at the city’s intersections, according to the Beijing municipal police website.

Good luck to them.

The police appear to have been goaded into action not so much by the anarchy that has long reigned on most Beijing streets, but by an online comment that went viral a few weeks ago.

A blogger remarked – entirely accurately – that crossing the road with Chinese characteristics has nothing to do with whether the lights are red or green. The determining factor is how many people are waiting on the curb. Once a crowd has reached critical mass, it moves.

As more and more Beijingers buy cars, and drive them without necessarily bothering to get a license, life for the city’s crowds of pedestrians and its diminishing band of cyclists has grown increasingly hazardous.

Pedestrian fatalities in China are 18 times higher, per 100,000 motorized vehicles, than in the United States, according to Ni Ying, who did her doctoral thesis on the dangers of Chinese crossroads.

“High rates of pedestrian noncompliance and low rates of driver-yielding behavior” accounted for the Chinese statistics, she concluded.

Jaywalking is a national habit that the capital’s police would like to break, but they are not training their sights on pedestrians alone. The goal, says the official website warning, is also to enforce drivers’ lane discipline and to stop cyclists crashing red lights, carrying passengers on the back seat, and riding the wrong way up cycle lanes.

This is nothing less than an assault on a fundamental right that all Chinese citizens hold dear: to do precisely as they please on the public highway.

Learning to 'Beijing it'

I walk, ride my bike, and drive my car all the time in Beijing, and frankly it is a miracle that I am still alive. Not least because after living here for six years, I have gone native when it comes to traffic etiquette.

I still recall the sense of pride with which I rode my bicycle the wrong way up a street for the first time, taking a call on my mobile phone. I felt like a true Beijinger. And the quaint idea that I should stop at a red light rather than weave a path through the cars getting in my way is one that I abandoned a long time ago.

I am better behaved behind the wheel of my 1980s Jeep Cherokee (an ideal, bullock-like vehicle in which to navigate the city’s traffic). But even then the frustration of watching other drivers jam up an intersection by ignoring the simplest rules of the road, not to mention elementary courtesy, can tempt me to barge into the melee myself.

In my family, we have coined a verb for the sort of inconsiderate and patently illegal behavior to which my wife and I occasionally sink, such as sailing past a highway traffic jam in the emergency vehicle lane: We call that “to Beijing it.”

If the city police have their way, that kind of description will soon be history. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The Beijing police department is running a little quiz on its “weibo,” a Twitter-like platform, asking people why they think Beijingers are so careless on the road. The two most popular answers so far are “a weak sense of the law” and “low levels of public morality and civic responsibility.”

It will take more than a few traffic fines to deal with those problems, I’m afraid. And I say that as one who, to his shame, knows whereof he speaks.

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