THE BLOG
07/15/2014 09:42 am ET | Updated Sep 14, 2014

Beijing's Streets: Anything but Pedestrian

For those who've successfully traversed Beijing's roads: You know it's no ordinary feat.

China's Communist political system has roots planted in Confucianism, a set of ethical and philosophical beliefs that stress obedience and community over the individual.

Yet, as a Beijing pedestrian, I sit firmly at the bottom of the food chain. I find myself regularly sprinting across eight-lane roads behind other anxious bodies attempting to weave through the onslaught of aggressive rickshaws, overconfident taxis, and moped drivers more preoccupied with their smoldering cigarettes than avoiding walkers.

The drivers I've experienced on Beijing's roads opt against the use of their brakes, choosing instead (on pedestrian green lights) to swerve around bikers or hassle those around them with the incessant blare of their horn.

Statistics suggest China's traffic fatalities are double those in the United States, yet China has one-third the cars on the road.

For a country whose Olympic opening ceremony featured 3,000 people reciting Confucian quotations, and one whose system of government, in theory, stands for collectivism, this lack of community on the road perplexes me.

On June 30, the government's official newspaper, People's Daily, reported that a police officer in Anhui Province sitting in his car refused to drive to a hospital a one-year-old boy who'd been struck in a hit-and-run accident. The distraught father was unsuccessful in his attempt to hail passing vehicles to help him in time to save his son.

A China Central Television (CCTV) report in May picked up on a similar theme. The report highlighted that while roughly 90 percent of cars make way for ambulances, 10 percent either pull in front of emergency vehicles or block their way.

This aggression and general lack of regard for the lives of others, thankfully seems limited to the nation's streets. Away from the roads I have found myself embraced by strangers and felt the community I see lacking on the street.

Through these varied interactions, I have come to understand that China's burgeoning population and the tremendous pressure to succeed that has divided its people are in part to blame.

Perhaps this has to do with China's growing pains as it tries to bring its rural population into cities and out of poverty. Over the past three decades, a staggering half a billion people have migrated into the urban fold, all looking for jobs and aiming for success.

Another 250 million are expected to make the same transition, meaning that 70 percent of China's 1.35 billion population will live in urban areas by 2025.

Although poverty in China has declined significantly as a result, there remain huge challenges for the nation, many associated with wealth disparity, environmental pollution and massive internal corruption that have promoted the pervasive 'individualistic' mentality when removed from the comforts of family.

On the streets, every man (or woman) must fend for him or herself.

One interpretation of "right-of-way" in Chinese is 先行权, literally translated as "first go rights." It seems this direct translation is how road etiquette has been understood and applied on Beijing's streets: the first in the way has the right on the road.

But some drivers have taken this interpretation to the extreme. I've witnessed motorists intentionally avoid eye contact with huddles of pedestrians in order to convey their intention of charging on.

Predictably, what is written in law is quite different than what takes place on the roads.

Article 47 of China's first collection of traffic laws, known as the Road Traffic Safety Law of the People's Republic of China, states: "When passing a pedestrian crosswalk, the driver shall reduce speed; and when pedestrians are passing the crosswalk, the driver shall stop to give way to the pedestrians."

But having only been adopted in May 2004, these laws represent a relatively recent development and certainly, as is often the case in China, there is no enforcement.

Laws in China, whether relative to chemical discharge or road safety, are frequently ignored by the public, unenforced by the police or judiciary, and require the injured to endure long, costly and convoluted processes to seek retribution. Chinese law does not make it easy for pedestrians to defend their road rights -- or any others for that matter.

Like elsewhere in Chinese life, pedestrians have accepted their place on Beijing's streets. They've embraced patience. I, on the other hand, find myself regularly glaring at unsuspecting drivers, unaffected, as they wiz past me, tires barely missing my toes.

Fast-forward five weeks into a Beijing sojourn and I'm no longer a pedestrian. I own a bicycle. With this purchase, the dynamics on the road have changed for me.

I find myself embracing the same individualistic, winner-takes-all road mentality to (literally) survive. With my bicycle, I've begun taking advantage of being a "bigger fish" on the road, ignoring traffic lights, pedestrians and riding down the wrong side of the road. I must confess, the transition was too easy.

I experienced this pressure to conform to anarchy again recently on the subway. As the train doors opened, I felt an influx of people swoop around me and pile into the carriage, unconcerned for those struggling to alight.

While I patiently held my ground I soon realized I was losing valuable space on the train - that by following the rules I was putting myself at a disadvantage.

Unfortunately, it seems, if you obey the teachings of Confucius and adhere to road rules in China, you're sure to be left behind.

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