And Finally

Crawling along

Beijing drivers faced worst-ever gridlock this week

Crawling along

You thought the M25 was bad...

Beijing is notorious for its traffic jams but last week the gridlock was so awful that one netizen suggested that the fastest way to get from the east of the city to the west was by detouring 917 kilometres to the south to travel via Nanjing.

The reason for the especially bad traffic? Residents seem to be blaming graft for the near paralysis on the streets over the past week. The suspicion is that drivers from out of town were journeying into Beijing to deliver presents to their favourite officials ahead of last Sunday’s Mid-Autumn Festival.

“The big corruption army has arrived, rushing into the capital bearing gifts,” one netizen wrote on his weibo. “They are the reason for the jam. If they come any later, they might not get promoted.”

“Everyone is rushing to kowtow to the palace officials,” another wrote.

Lavishing officials with expensive gifts during the Mid-Autumn Festival (and other major Chinese celebrations) is a practice that reflects a culture of gift-giving, as well as a tradition of basing business decisions on personal relationships.

An increasing number of Beijing locals, too, are taking the annual opportunity to wine and dine government officials in hope of establishing a rapport and gaining favour in the future.

“Businessmen come to visit the departments of industry and commerce; lawyers to visit clients and prosecutors; bankers and developers to visit various ministries, and subordinates to visit directors,” says Liu Can, a Beijing-based lawyer.

In fact, traffic in Beijing was so bad that cab drivers were switching off their engines on the worst of the gridlocked roads. More far-sighted drivers brought special purpose bags on their trips in case they got stuck in traffic and needed to relieve themselves. Others were so worked up about the jams that they decided to take the day off.

According to the city authority’s Traffic Performance Index, congestion peaked at a 9.8 score (out of 10) last Tuesday, which implies almost total standstill. It is believed to be the highest level reached since the ratings were introduced in May last year. The problem was made worse by the city government – which ordered that toll roads be made free for the week. Nice gesture, but it led to more cars choking roads than usual (and angered the toll operators – though this is not the first time a local government has done so this year, see WiC154).

To ease the pain, a Beijing radio station even put a psychiatrist on air during peak hours to help drivers cope. More practically, the city authorities sent a text message to all residents, urging them to avoid crowded areas and use public transport over the weekend.

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