Salesman Feng Bolin, 40, standing at center, shares a toast with coworkers at a Beijing restaurant. To do business in China, drinking is a must, he said. On this night, he rode his bicycle. (William Wan/THE WASHINGTON POST)

After three decades of uninhibited economic growth, one vexing crisis China faces is this: more money, more cars, more drinking, more problems.

On some nights, driving along Beijing’s bar districts feels roughly on a par with sharing the road with an entire nation of newly licensed teens all weaving their way home from a pledge party.

For years, the problem of drunken driving was largely ignored by the government, treated with spotty enforcement and fines. But a string of fatal crashes during the past two years, often involving officials or rich elites, has led to public outcry — the one thing the government fears most. As a result, Chinese officials have begun responding to drunken driving the way they would to any threat to social stability — with overwhelming force.

Last month, China instituted its first law making drunken driving a criminal act. Soon after, officials declared a full-on war in China’s streets. In Beijing alone, 7,000 police officers were deployed to set up checkpoints, armed with tear gas and 10-meter, tire-puncturing nail strips. And for several weeks, state-owned media plastered stories of such arrests on their front pages.

“Many people just think they drink when they need to drink and they drive when they need to drive. They don’t yet realize those two are in conflict,” said Xia Xueluan, a sociologist at Peking University. “The change in culture in China hasn’t caught up with the growth in cars.”

He and other experts say drunken driving is the result of the new China colliding with the old.

New car culture

In just two decades, China has transformed from a land of bicycles to a country where cars are the preeminent symbol of status. The numbers are staggering, rocketing from 5.5 million civilian-owned cars and trucks in 1990 to 214 million vehicles now clogging China’s streets. Last year, more than 18 million vehicles were sold, making it the world’s largest auto market.

China’s healthy love for liquor has been celebrated for centuries. Its history and literature are practically soaked in it — especially the traditional Chinese grain alcohol baijiu.

Baijiu remains ubiquitous in restaurants. Business dinners inevitably feature the fiery, sorghum-based liquor, with each side making toasts and forcing the other to drink under threat of losing face.

The Chinese appetite for alcohol has only increased in recent decades, according to studies. Baijiu production has shot up by more than 50 percent in the past three years. The marketing firm Datamonitor predicts that Chinese alcohol consumption will rise from 47 billion liters in 2009 to 61 billion liters in 2014.

Unused to the idea of moderation, confused drivers in China have responded to the recent crackdown on drunken driving with their own shows of force. One man in the northern province of Shanxi bit the hand of a policeman in an attempt to avoid an alcohol test. An officer in Beijing remains in a coma after being run over last year by a driver he was trying to stop for an alcohol test.

And because new car owners tend to be upper-class elites, lethal cases of drunken driving have become a symbol of sorts of the widening disparity between China’s rich and poor.

In the past two years especially, whole swaths of online forums have been devoted to chronicling spectacularly scandalous cases of drunken driving. In one incident in December, a local official in Henan province killed five teenagers walking on the side of the road. The official still hasn’t been tried, and his superiors have instead tried to give the grieving family members money. In another particularly gruesome case from Nanjing, a driver with a blood alcohol level five times the limit killed five people, including a pregnant woman.

‘My father is Li Gang’

The most famous case occurred in October in Hebei province when the son of a deputy police chief named Li Gang hit two female students at Hebei University, killing one. After the accident, the intoxicated driver went on to drop his girlfriend off at her dorm, stopping only when forced to by security guards. When they tried to arrest him, he allegedly shouted out: “Go ahead, sue me if you dare! My father is Li Gang!”

Government censors quickly tried to quash news of the incident, seeing all the ingredients for public backlash. But the case went viral online, and “My father is Li Gang” has become a catchphrase — shorthand for avoiding one’s responsibilities — and the subject of songs, online parodies and even an art installation. When Li’s son was convicted a few months ago for a lesser charge of causing a traffic accident, the blogosphere boiled over with fury.

Amid the recent crackdown, those without political connections have fared considerably worse. At least one intoxicated driver has received a death sentence in the past two years (though it was later reduced to life in prison).

The arbitrary harshness of a few sentences has some judges and legal experts beginning to question the government’s new approach.

But while awareness of the government’s crackdown is spreading, its long-term impact remains ambiguous.

On a recent night, Sun Pengbin, 30 — an appliance salesman, a frequent drinker and a newly licensed driver — explained his philosophy this way:

“Sure, I’ve driven after drinking before. I do it maybe eight or 10 times a year. It’s perfectly fine as long as the streets aren’t too crowded. You just drive slowly.”

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.