The rigidity of Chinese government’s control over people’s lives is well documented. Many foreign observers (including myself), however, often naively assume that people in China are equally rigid about complying with government rules.
Not so much. Unlike Japanese who generally take comfort in following rules en masse, the Chinese – I mean those who are not bureaucrats – seem to take a certain pride, and pleasure, in thinking on their feet. They surprised me with the ways they’ve devised to evade what they perceive as over-regulation.
Look no further than Beijing’s [failed] traffic
Beijing authorities came up with a rolling schedule that prohibits certain cars, on any given weekday, from being on the road. Those cars are determined by the final two digits on license plates. The restriction was introduced prior to Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games – exactly four years ago. The mission was clear: the government needed to control the terrible pollution over the city, pronto, before foreign visitors showed up for the Olympic Games and started coughing.
It remains unclear the effectiveness of such a measure as a quick fix to the city’s polluted air. But Beijing authorities kept the road restriction – originally pitched to their citizens only as a temporary measure -- long after the Olympics was over. It remains in effect today.
Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon to see Beijing residents intentionally defying the rule, blithely – or stubbornly -- driving along on days when their vehicles should be tucked into a parking space.
“Sure, I would have to pay a fine for the violation,” said a friend living in Beijing. But she pointed out that the hassle of finding a parking spot (“believe me, it’s hard to find”) and then paying hefty fees for a 24-hour stretch in one spot comes down to roughly the same cost as the fine.
I asked, why not take the subway? She looked long and hard at me, conveying the clear message that I didn’t know what I was talking about. “The connections of intersecting [subway] lines are preposterous. You end up walking miles to get from one end of the stop to another end at the same station.”
Of course, there’s another, better way to defy the rule. Buy another car. Indeed, Beijing residents are becoming two-car households purely to avoid the dual inconveniences of public transportation and once-a-week driving bans. So, in a grand illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences, a bureaucratic brainstorm intended to reduce the number of cars on the road has the potential to double the cars on the road.
The good news is that there are consumers in Beijing today who can actually afford two cars. Some even stockpile multiple cars.
The bad news, however, is the unintended consequence. Road restrictions originally designed to remove a fifth of private cars from roads each weekday have been offset by 250,000 new cars that hit the city streets in the first four months of 2010, according to a New York Times article published two years ago.
It’s not like Beijing authorities can’t see that their ambitious plan is not working. They get it. But instead of choosing to invest in better bus services or more convenient connections for subway lines, they’re still sticking to their guns and insisting that citizens stop cheating. Whether this is a sign that they believe in the power of persuasion, or that they’re just stubborn, the odds are that, eventually, they’ll give up, move on and develop a pollution plan that actually works.
Meanwhile, people in China are resilient – and more creative than we think. They’ll find a way to get around the system. That quiet dissidence, or imaginative stubbornness, might be the real key to China’s future.
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