China As Seen From A Bicycle, The Bicycle As Seen From China
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The iconic shots of Chinese bicycle rivers in White’s film pale before the real thing. During my first trip to Beijing in winter 1983, pedalling a rented bike in my anonymous blue coat surrounded by thousands of similarly-dressed comrades, I felt very much a part of the critical masses as we churned Chang An Jie into a rush hour Yangtze. Any major Chinese city in those days had dedicated bicycle parking areas as large as a shopping mall lot, Flying Pigeons fender to fender as far as the eye could see. The few cars stood out as flag-decorated black islands in the blue-coated sea. Bicycles were near the top of the Chinese traffic food chain, their only natural predator being the city bus. Graphic, medically-detailed corpse shots of errant bicyclists and pedestrians protruding from beneath mammoth wheels were standard fare at bus-stops around the city, traffic safety propaganda that made up in persuasive power what it lacked in subtlety. Early settlers in America described flocks of Passenger Pigeons hundreds of miles long that would take hours to pass, barely seeming to notice the effects of salvos of buckshot. Similarly, the occasional depredations from bus tires failed to make headway against the torrent of 1980s Chinese bicyclists...
In Guangzhou 2010 where I ride these days, we bicyclists haven’t entirely gone the way of the Passenger Pigeon, but neither are we swashbuckling along near the top of the food chain as we once did. In fact, if you asked most people living in China today about the current state of bicycling in major cities, they would probably tell you that we have di sappeared altogether. This is far from true: we’ve just gone underground (literally in some cases: my favorite route passes at one point through an underground tunnel not yet open to cars). We gravitate towards roads that are less-heavily trafficked, wider, and not favored by our nemesis, the hated bus. If you patronize these routes (Linjiang Dadao is a great one in my adopted city), you will see a steady, heavy stream of bicycles, if not the hundred-mile-long flocks of the 1980s. And the seat of a bike remains an excellent vantage point from which to observe a changing China.
My Biking Comrades
In the first place, there are my fellow riders. For the most part, at least on my route, these are Guangzhou’s newest citizens. I am surrounded by migrant workers for the first half of my morning ride, whether threading the loop from dormitory to construction site, or folding up impromptu teepees in underpasses and bathing at leaking water mains. They pedal everywhere around me, exchanging morning pleasantries in the dialects of Sichuan, Anhui, Chaoshan and Hubei, their bikes festooned with full-length ladders, half-assembled scaffolding and recycled wood, metal and plastic of every description. Though perhaps unassuming in and of themselves, these fellow bicyclists represent the greatest population movement in recorded history, as 300,000,000 rural dwellers have flooded China’s cities in a little over three decades, taking the urban share of the population from 15% to 40%. My new neighbors represent a common phenomenon in modern China: that which the government permits but cannot readily control. Not all of them are struggling for a foothold at the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Our college-educated Hubei nanny affords the bus, laughs at my bicycling, corrects my Chinese grammar and has proven herself notably more adept with a book than a broom. Like her poorer countrymen, though, she lacks a Guangzhou hukou (resi--dence); her son can never attend school here, nor can she readily avail herself of basic amenities such as public hospitals. The eventual fate of China’s migrant workers, whether they stay or return to the village, integrate or are held at arm’s length from urban life, will say much about China’s direction in the coming decades.
Ethics of Chinese Traffic
The seat of a bike affords a panoramic view of another aspect of life in China. Let’s call it “the Confucian approach to traffic control.” Laws do exist governing one-way streets, red and green lights and the sanctity of the sidewalk from vehicular incursion, but their application is haphazard, to say the least. An American or European driver feels that if he or she is not exceeding the speed limit or otherwise in technical violation of the laws of the road, any grace shown to pedestrians, bicyclists or other motorists is strictly optional. Chinese drivers are much less concerned with the letter of the law, and seem to view driving more as a continual process of negotiation, which will hopefully result in the satisfaction, more or less, of all parties. This extends to the occasional accident as well, conflicts which are often settled with a quick application of cash rather than an appeal to the police or judicial system. As haphazard as it all sounds, I have found Chinese drivers surprisingly gentle to cyclists. A frequent injunction to novice urban bikers in the US is to “pretend you’re invisible.” Chinese drivers seem much more inclined to yield to riders (at least big, sweaty white ones with helmets), and though I still find myself after several years riding in China entirely unprepared for what any given motorist is likely to do at any given moment, I feel safer and more generally deferred to as a bicyclist here than I ever did in the US or Hong Kong. Chinese motorists seem to suffer less than American ones from the sense of wounded outrage at discovering a bicycle sharing the road with them, perhaps because most people driving a car in China in 2010 were sitting five years ago where I am now, perched on the saddle of a bike.
China is building new roads faster than any place in history, and has recently passed Japan as the country with the second-greatest total length of roadway after the US. China had 18.5 km of expressways in 1988, and now has 53,000 km. This has occasioned a great deal of tearing up and laying down. Guangzhou, preparing now for the Asia games at the end of this year, is in a particular frenzy of road-building, resurfacing and general traffi-cide. Nearly every section of the route I ride to work has been torn up and re-paved in the last several months, some abandoned in mid-demolition: littered with heaved-up chunks of asphalt and dotted with unexpected trenches, piles of rubble and open manhole covers. China’s tortured roadways are a metaphor for a China that grows, changes and sheds its skin at a pace that is simply bewildering to its residents, let alone to foreign observers. I’m reminded of a recent essay by Peter Hessler, one of the finest foreign writers on modern China, about returning to rural America after a decade of living in Beijing. The pace of change was dizzyingly, disorientingly slow by contrast: his neighbors would gather excitedly to discuss the installation of a new traffic light in town. In Guangzhou, I always ride slowly after I’ve been off the road for even 24 hours: nothing spoils your day quite like the appearance without warning of a meter-deep trench, freshly dug and tucked in for the night under a road-grey tarpaulin...
As a bicyclist, or any participant in Chinese urban traffic, one is unavoidably aware of being… monitored. Traffic police, white-gloved, leather-booted, equipped with slogan-bearing red flags and appropriately-menacing dark glasses, are at nearly every major intersection during rush hour, and they are quite active participants in the traffic dance. I have been pulled off my bike by them on a few occasions. As with the application of any Chinese laws, however, the process of adjudication is highly negotiable: bicyclists speeding across a road in the middle of a walkway are usually only chided with a sharp whistle, and the last wave of cars barrelling through a red light rarely receives more than a stern glance. Guangzhou, like many Chinese cities, is schizophrenic in its views on the proper place of bicycles on 21st century urban roads. Bikes are banned on many downtown streets as a hindrance to the darling of modern transport, the private car; at the same time, there is much official puffing about the value of bicycle travel as a potential antidote to crushing urban gridlock. The traffic cops have honed a balanced and thoughtful response to this apparent contradiction: as long as the illegal bicyclist wheels a tactful 2-3 meters beyond the borders of the policeman’s crosswalk kingdom, s/he can mount up and cycle away unmolested.
More inscrutable and ubiquitous are the new arbiters of the Chinese street, the increasingly numerous traffic cameras, of which 2.75 million have been installed in recent years, one million in Guangdong province alone. I pass them on nearly every corner. As in the United States, they survey the street for infractions both traffic-related and otherwise. In China, though, they are joined by cameras in hotels, guesthouses, hospitals, buses, libraries, museum, schools, internet cafes, galleries and newsstands. As the technology for monitoring public places grows increasingly seamless and the islands of unsupervised space melt away, one wonders about the impact on history’s most closely-watched generation. Products of the one-child policy, China’s only children are observed anxiously at home, proctored closely in schools and kept secure by a technology which insures they are playing safely, whether on the internet, bus or playground.
China And The Car
To the urban bicyclist, one aspect of the modern Chinese traffic landscape predominates: cars. Sitting at the crosswalk waiting for my turn, I carry out an informal survey of the endless flow of automotive traffic: about one car in three is an enormous American-style SUV. I don’t see more than a handful of cars out of several dozen with more than a single passenger. Subtract the deadly-silent electric mopeds, the bright orange three-wheeled scooters issued by the government to the disabled (who turn them into an informal taxi service) and other disparate elements that make up perhaps 20% of traffic in downtown Guangzhou and you have a fleet of roomy private cars that would be generally quite familiar to any resident of downtown Dallas or Phoenix. China is now the world’s largest auto market, with car sales growing at an annual 30% clip in recent years. It is sobering though to remember that China in 2005 had 8 vehicles per 1000 population, compared to 950 for the US. Looking at the line of vehicles inching forward in front of me, the idea that China’s car ownership rates could somehow rise ten or a hundred-fold simply boggles the imagination. Urban roadways are already stretched to the limits. Poor air quality threatens the health of residents in many of China’s largest cities, and tailpipe emissions were estimated to account for 80% of urban air pollution as of 2005. (Incidentally, though, the oft-quoted “statistic” that 5 of the world’s 10 cities with the worst air quality are in China is nothing more than an urban legend. There is only one Chinese city on the list, and it neither glamorous Shanghai nor much-maligned Beijing, but lowly Linfen: www.environmentalsciencedegrees.net/blog/2010/top-10-world-cities-with-p...).
The government’s role in all of this is ambivalent: the tax on large cars has recently been increased to 40%, and that for the smallest reduced to 1%. China appears to have made a serious commitment to becoming the world leader in electric car technology. Automotive emissions standards are tighter than the US and generally on a par with Europe. Still, the fact remains that unfettered consumerism is a vital safety valve for a sometimes restive population, something of which the government is acutely aware. And it would appear that there is nothing that Chinese consumers want more than a home and a car to go with it. A government strong enough to tell its citizens how many children they may have could surely do the same with cars; Beijing’s unwillingness to stem the flow bespeaks a reluctance to fail in its implicit promise to trade material comforts for social stability. It would be difficult to maintain that this policy is designed primarily to benefit the domestic car industry: local brands make up only about 40% of China’s total market. Spending any amount of time in traffic in one of China’s major cities amounts to a convincing argument that the juggernaut growth of Chinese car culture is on a completely unsustainable path. Only the government is in a position to pull back on the throttle, which it has so far shown little inclination to do.
The Meaning Of The Bike.
In The Mill on the Floss, George Elliott invites us to consider the importance of familiarity as a condition for love: “We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it...” What then does this say about the love we may feel for an adopted country? For I am, despite the qualms expressed above, unambiguously in love with China, and have been since the age of 16. Certainly, much about China is deliciously, maddeningly, delightfully familiar to me: the food, the language, the people, the way of approaching a problem, settling a disagreement or striking up a conversation. The family at my daily breakfast spot knows me well enough to spot me 10 kuai for a weekend if I happen to be short on change, and I count among my colleagues at work, all of whom are Chinese, a former student who has become my closest and dearest professional collaborator. But China and I are also strangers to one another. I draw regular stares, whether as a bicyclist, a surgeon, or the father of a blond and blue-eyed mandarin-speaking 5-year-old. I lead a life of daily discoveries—humbling, surprising, frustrating, sometimes enlightening. Bicycling for me is very much the same. All the riding I do at this point in my life is daily, year round commuting, which is about getting from point A to point B. And back to A. Then back to B. Then A again. What I love is that I am negotiating my own carriage from one necessary point to the other, surrounded by thousands and millions of fellow travelers doing the same thing. I ride the identical route every day, in every season. Herein lies the same granular alloy of the strange and well-known that I encounter in China. I pass the very same points each day on an unvarying route of 25.4 kilometers, and what I love, what I am in love with, is that the road and I are the same day after day, and yet we are completely new, different, as fresh as unexpected weather, a sudden shift in speed or a familiar but unidentifiable smell. Some of us, it seems, are always on the way from A to B, always in that eternally surprising place in between. Never entirely home.
Nathan Congdon is an ophthalmologist focusing on blindness prevention at Zhongshan Ophthalmic Center in Guangzhou, China, where he lives with his wife and two children. He has been a daily, year-round urban bike commuter for 20 years in the US, Hong Kong and China, and has been car-free for the last 4 years. This essay was mostly composed and revised while riding a bicycle to work.