People Mountain, People Sea… of Cars

By Jonathan Chandler
Exclusive to The Wild East

Traffic control (later) implemented in Qingdao's Beer Street. Photo:

September is here, and with it the teeming masses have left the beach — drunk down all the Tsingtao beer during the two-week Beer Festival — and returned to the provinces to take their dearly beloved one child per family back to the daily school grind of getting good grades in tests. The sky is blue, the sea is glittering and the mountains are crisply defined as we sail down empty afternoon roads.

At this pivotal moment on the global market balance sheet, China is positioned perfectly to define and exploit its role as one of the great superpowers of the world economy. Indeed, if you had been in Qingdao in August you would have been amazed by the sheer numbers of new, ultra-expensive luxury car imports, and the vast crowds of very well-off citizens spending their Summer hols cavorting in swimwear all over the place. This is all with a most un-Confucian lack of modesty and newly-acquired concept of “leisure” that was previously unknown in the Middle Kingdom and definitely frowned upon by traditional Confucianist dogma.

Not being of that persuasion I can report with sincerity that it was a very fine thing to behold the Shandong xiao-jie’s – the Little Misses – in their designer logo-branded bikinis. And then there was the Beer Festival.

The Chinese have a saying for be-mobbed crowds – “ren shan ren hai” (人山人海) – People Mountain, People Sea. And while driving – or attempting to drive – in the vicinity of the Beer Festival grounds in the last two weeks of August, you would have discovered just how appropriate this saying was, thereby once again illustrating how rich and perfectly apt are the descriptive phrases of the ancient and glorious Chinese language. But as I sat in the taxi for ninety minutes to pass through one intersection on the opening day, I was struck by the thought that there might be a serious hitch in the government plans for domestic stimulus.

Cars: too many of them already and an infinity more to come。
Apparently in the year to date, China has bought more cars than America.
In fact, the government has actively been encouraging this car-buying spree with its mainline shooting up of multi-trillion Renminbi intravenous speedballs into the country’s economic veins.

As I sat there, sweat cascading down my face and back in the sauna-room taxi, going nowhere at no speed, I was thinking about modern European and the developed world’s cities with their anti-car policies.

When we finally reached the actual curb corner to take us out of the jam, I saw a single traffic cop, his hat perched on the back of his head like Elvis in G.I. Blues, his red face drenched, his green uniform stained and darkened all over, his hair a tangle of tufts as manic as the gridlock all around him.

He caught my eye and I saluted and winked. His eyes stayed on mine for a few suspended moments, then he smiled wryly, shrugged his shoulders and held out his palms as if to say, “Zhe-ma ban? What can one poor cop do?”

So here’s the problem: if China continues down the path of domestic stimulus with the encouraging of private vehicle acquisition, the future will be one hellzapoppin’ car-jam, which is bad for the environment, a waste of energy and above all, a farcical waste of time and thus money.

I’ve experienced plenty of Shanghai lockdown and that ninety minutes a couple of Saturday early evenings ago, stranded on a Qingdao beach road, made me think that China might consider some other way to get people to spend their way out of the recession, because private cars are inevitably a doomed species, a thing of the past.

The whole world wants China to go on marching forward into a bright and shining future… not sitting in traffic stasis being an object of futility, productive of one thing only: gallons of sweat!

Jonathan Chandler is a British novelist and writer currently based in Qingdao, China.

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