Asleep at the wheel

A deadly cocktail of banquets, booze and bad driving

Asleep at the wheel

Bloody dangerous: a police roadshow warns of drink-driving risks

Liang Huiming was no ordinary drunk driver. Nor was his excuse for becoming so.

According to the Southern Metropolis News, Liang heads the party disciplinary committee in Panyu’s Lanhe township. But he absolved himself of any blame in his own disciplinary incident by telling the police that he had been ‘drinking while doing public work’. He then tried to order the local constables to let him off.

After failing a blood test, Liang has become one of the higher profile victims of the recent crackdown on drunk-drivers. And the head of the party disciplinary committee is now facing party disciplinary measures himself, reports the newspaper.

Liang’s case is illustrative of a wider problem. China is second only to India in traffic fatalities. The Ministry of Public Security has also revealed that deaths caused by drunk driving accounted for 4.21% of the 73,484 who died on China’s roads in 2008.

The problem has been worsening too: the number of drink driving cases rose 9% in the first half of the year. At the root of the problem is a dramatic rise in car ownership, combined with a drinking culture that dates back millennia.

When Liang said he was drinking while doing public work, he may well have been telling the truth. Ritualised drinking at dinners plays a key role in doing business in China. Whether you want to term it ‘breaking the ice’ or relationship building, drinking games with Chinese rice wine (baiju) will occur at many Chinese banquets.

Such is the testimony from an unlikely source – the man who brought British pop group Wham to China in 1985, reports the Global Times. “In China, there is one thing that can make two strangers quickly become friends, and that is alcohol.” Simon Naber recounted to the newspaper that he was getting nowhere in his promotional endeavours until he invited an official in the coal ministry to join him at a banquet (which Naber paid for).

The two got drunk together. The official then put Naber in touch with the relevant departments and thereby helped ensure that Wake Me Up Before You Go Go was the first foreign song to be performed in China since 1949. Destiny, indeed.

A strong stomach for imbibing is a critical attribute for any bureaucrat. “Drinking with official guests or other officials at alcohol-soaked events is considered part of the job,” reckons Professor Li Changyan of Peking University. And these days there are no shortage of banquets: Chinese government officials spend a belt-busting $73 billion on them per year. Some even turn out to be deadly. In a widely publicised incident in July, an official in Hubei province drank himself to death at an official function. Jin Guoqing – a senior official in Wuhan’s water resources bureau – fell unconscious while entertaining guests, and died on the way to hospital, the China Daily reported. Hospital records indicated the 47 year-old’s excessive drinking had triggered a fatal heart attack.

For the most part, however, the sozzled officials – and their guests from the business world – survive the meal. Unfortunately, this means that many will also slump behind the wheel and try to drive home.

Here is a key difference from the 1970s and 1980s, when those same officials would zig-zag home on their bicycles – posing little risk to anyone but themselves. Today’s drunken banqueters are far more of a public hazard.

The recent crackdown on drink driving seems to have been sparked by a horrific incident in late June, when an inebriated man ran into pedestrians with his Buick LaCrosse. Five died, including a husband and wife. Tragically, the woman was only weeks away from giving birth, and the unborn child was splayed across the road. Graphic photos online ensured a voluble outcry.

Till now, the penalties for drink driving have been relatively light – a maximum of 15 days detention, versus, for example, two years hard labour in Japan.

Likewise, you had to drink a lot more in China before the breathalyser light blinked positive. This encouraged a complacent attitude to fester – and fostered widely-held views like ‘beer doesn’t count’.

But things are changing. On August 17, a court in Henan jailed a drunk driver for six and a half years – after an accident in which he killed six. And a drunk driver from Chengdu was recently sentenced to death for killing four people in another car accident.

And random breath tests are on the rise too – although the results so far only point to just how endemic the drink-driving problem is. The Ministry of Public Security this week released the results of its nationwide crackdown. It said that it caught 2,403 drunk-drivers. In some provinces four out of 10 tested were over the legal limit.

One thing’s clear: China’s banqueting culture won’t be changed quickly. That being so: how will the country get its drinkers off its roads?

As the Economist points out, taxis may be the only solution.

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