Magazine article Newsweek International

Letter from China: Driving like the East Winds

Magazine article Newsweek International

Letter from China: Driving like the East Winds

Article excerpt

Byline: Craig Simons

Was I deranged or merely stupid? Given the choice of flying or driving from Beijing to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, 2,100 kilometers west of the capital, I considered the facts. Even though China has fewer than 8 vehicles per 1,000 citizens--compared with 940 vehicles per 1,000 Americans--the country ranks No. 1 in the world in auto fatalities. Over the past two decades, as many Chinese have become rich enough to afford cars, road deaths have increased fivefold. In 2003, more than 104,000 Chinese were killed in traffic accidents, roughly two and a half times the U.S. total.

The reality of these statistics hit with full force along the highway just outside Beijing, as I was busy dodging East Wind trucks loaded with just about everything imaginable: pigs crammed hock to jowl, a mountain of recycled Styrofoam like a small ski slope, fist-size rocks that occasionally bounced off the truck beds and into the fields abutting the road. The East Winds are the lumbering workhorses of China's economic miracle, but the beneficiaries of the system--the army of black Audis and Santanas, most of them bearing government license plates--were there, too, weaving like figure skaters through the traffic. When I gave them a centimeter, they took it.

I marveled at how the highway seemed like a perfectly oiled machine--until one of the parts came loose. Traffic slowed to a crawl as we passed the mangled wreckage of an Audi that had just whizzed by. It was bent into the shape of an L around the highway median. My friend, a Chinese restaurant owner named Chen Xingyu, hardly blinked. "It's worse in Chengdu," he said, pointing out that Sichuan had the dubious distinction of racking up the nation's most traffic deaths last year, the worst of the worst.

For the next three hours, from the industrial city of Shijiazhuang to the edge of the Yellow River, I kept two hands on the steering wheel and stared intently into the darkness, trying to spot the trucks with no taillights that reared suddenly from the black. …

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