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Behind the Wheel in China

By Matthew Forney
Saturday, February 21, 2009 12:00 AM

Beijing -- If Secretary of State Clinton abandons her chauffeured sedan and jumps behind the wheel of her own car during her three-day trip to Beijing, she'll likely learn a fundamental truth about rule of law in China: that it's as malleable as a fiberglass bumper.

My lead-footed Italian wife and I recently found ourselves ensnared in China's gauzy legal system when we tried to renew our car's registration. We've lived in Beijing for more than a decade, but this was the first renewal for our Chinese-made Fiat.

An officer at the traffic police building informed us that our car had received twelve citations. She pointed to a computer monitor with speed-trap images purporting to show our station wagon racing up the capital's Third Ring Road at two in the morning at nearly twice the 50 mph speed limit.

We should have known of the violations, the officer scolded, because in China, drivers are expected to enter their own license-plate numbers onto a police website to check for tickets. Then she told us that in addition to hundreds of dollars in traffic fines, we'd accrued penalty points for every infraction -- twelve of which would cost a driver his license. "How many points do we have?" I asked.

"Forty two."

The officer should have confiscated both our licenses then and there. Feeling sheepish, I asked if I could discuss this with anyone and was pointed to an upstairs "legal department."

It consisted of a small room with two desks, one of them bare. Upon the other sat a notebook, a pen, a little spoon for scooping out ear wax and the folded hands of a bored young officer in a green uniform who couldn't believe that anybody would protest a traffic violation. "Your car was photographed," he said. "What can you appeal?"

Stymied, I asked if there was anything we could do to save our licenses. The officer stared at me for a long time -- I was sure he suspected I was bribing him, which would have meant trouble. In fact, he was taking measure of the idiots facing him. "Just find other drivers with clean licenses to clear your points for you," he said finally. "That's what everybody does."

So much for the iron fist of Chinese authoritarianism. Although the Communist Party suppresses dissent with ruthless efficiency, away from that core concern it often can't enforce its will. In our humble case, the police's weak enforcement of traffic rules enabled me to search online and find a dealer of used Volkswagens who cleansed our driving records of all 42 points for $7 a pop.

Life in China sometimes improves when the government fails to enforce its mandates. My neighborhood, for instance, benefits from many unlicensed small businesses -- such as a foot massage parlor and a guy peddling steamed dumplings for a quarter a bag -- that operate out of jerry-rigged storefronts in an area not zoned for commerce. In general, it's easy in China to start a company, buy the latest banned Hollywood movie on a pirated DVD or shoot off contraband fireworks. China is a can-do place.

But there's a huge downside to this laissez-faire life. Think about the dozens of substandard concrete schools that collapsed in an earthquake last year in Sichuan province, or of the farmers who are thrown off their land in favor of luxury real-estate developments, or the 300,000 Chinese babies who developed kidney stones (and the six who died) after consuming cheap infant formula that was deliberately tainted with a chemical used in kitchen countertops.

Or, for that matter, think of the point-shaving scheme that kept me on the road. A friend of mine, the head of a trucking company, regularly hits 125 mph on Beijing's airport expressway. His drivers took his points for him until they ran out of points to spare. "That's like 200 people," he told me. Small wonder China suffers more traffic deaths per number of vehicles on the road than any other country in the world.

Chinese people must live with the contradiction of a government that crushes dissent but can't confiscate driver's licenses from even the most egregious of road hogs. They make choices every day about following the rules or breaking them. My wife and I have tried to change our lead-footed ways, but I wouldn't expect others to do so without a meaningful threat of punishment.

Before arriving in China, Clinton indicated that human rights will take a lower place on America's agenda than they did in the 1990s, when her husband served as president. This reflects a more nuanced understanding of China. America can and should press the Chinese government to allow its people more freedoms and legal protections -- and for the release of political prisoners. But the interaction between China's rulers and its citizens is too messy for blanket accusations.

I realize that Clinton can't actually abandon her entourage, rent a car and put her gas pedal to the metal. If she did, though, she'd see less of the Chinese government's strengths and learn a lot about its weaknesses.

Matthew Forney, a Beijing-based writer, served for six years as Time's Beijing bureau chief.

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