China Environmental Law

A discussion of China’s environmental and energy laws, regulations, and policies

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The Wild One

January 16th, 2009 · 8 Comments

They line their bikes up along the curb outside the Changshu Road subway station and wait for fares.  It’s a strict FIFO system, no jostling for line position or fare poaching.  They’re all men in their fifties, and they belong to the brotherhood of “black” bikes.  For less than the price of a taxi, they will ferry you from the subway station to your office.  Most are riding gasoline powered Hondas and Suzukis, but a few have ancient three-wheeled models.  The helmets are idiosyncratic.  Some have the look of German army extras in a World War II film, others like dressage competitors, if you could compete in dressage with a cigarette dangling from your lips.

If you are lucky and catch a three-wheeler at the head of the queue, there is often a separate wooden seat over the back two wheels, otherwise you have to climb on behind the driver and share the banana seat.  From what I’ve heard, the ride is harrowing.  Speed is of the essence, and speed combined with the absence of any steel encasing and Shanghai’s chaotic traffic, must make for one eye-popping, heart-pounding experience. 

Yesterday a policeman was shooing these “black” bike riders away.  They started off in a pack, engines roaring, up the narrow Huating Road for about 50 feet and then stopped.  The policeman followed shouting at them, and they started up the street again, but slowly, just keeping out of reach of the advancing policeman.  After they had lured him about a block up the road, they sped off in different directions.  They were back in their usual spots this morning.

The police won’t get rid of them without a constant police presence or nailing one of the bikers with a stiff penalty.  A similar war against the area dan bing makers was waged several months ago.  For a while the police simply required them to pack up their mobile kitchens and leave.  Then one day, a van pulled up in front of these breakfast vendors, and 6 policeman burst out.  The vendors bolted, but one unfortunate was quickly collared, and he and his remaining inventory were loaded into the van.

That was the end of the dan bing makers at the Changshu Road station, or so it seemed.  This morning as I contemplated the ultimate fate of the “black” bikes I heard a clanging noise on the opposite sidewalk.  It was a guy erecting his griddle to start making breakfast.

Tags: miscellany

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam Minter // Jan 16, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Charlie - Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but … is it mere coincidence that this post follows one concerned with China’s environmental enforcement efforts? Kind of work the same way, don’t they? Chase away a bunch of Yellow River paper mills, and they’ll be back in six months; crack down on a dirty steel mill, and somebody else will be operating in its shell during the next quarter. On and on.

  • 2 cmcelwee // Jan 16, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    I’m glad somebody is awake in class today Adam. I find myself conflicted on this issue. I love the indomitable entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese. My sympathies naturally lie with the street vendors and bikers, but what they are doing is against the law. How can I root for them and condemn the renegade polluter? My only refuge, I think is to argue that the Changshu Road crimes are victimless (or at least the potential victims have assumed a known risk—food poisoning or a grizzly smashup), which makes those who perpetrate these crimes less blameworthy. The gypsy paper mill operators have probably never met most of their victims. On the enforcement side, I think it comes down to heavy, frequently imposed penalties. If enough people are sent to jail, the risks will eventually become too great for the vast majority of potential entrants into the market. I don’t see any other alternative, but would welcome ideas.

  • 3 Adam Minter // Jan 16, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    This is an interesting topic. I think it very American of us to believe that the law should be enforced uniformly - equal protection and prosecution for the biggest paper mill and the smallest noodle salesman. But the longer I’m here, the more I realize that this just isn’t the way that things happen around here. Different levels, different standards. In any case, yes, I agree with you that financial penalties - frequent and expensive - are the way to go.

  • 4 cmcelwee // Jan 16, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Adam, I think you’ve identified the key issue. I don’t think the law should be enforced unreflectively. I would prefer a system that can wink at the small fry as long as he isn’t engaged in activity that can create significant or unassumed risks to others, yet spares no effort bringing those who create the most societal harm to justice. My guess is most Chinese would agree with this proposition. The problem in China is that the biggest fish usually has the most protection. It’s the small guys who bear the brunt of repressed prosecutorial zeal. On the penalty front, I’d also include long jail terms—knowing violations of environmental laws that cause harm to others are serious crimes, and they should be treated as such.

  • 5 Greg // Jan 17, 2009 at 2:49 am

    I would say that motorcycle analogy has another meaning. The presence of street vendors and renegade bike taxis gives China a “less developed” image in the eyes of the government.
    But government officials driving their cars on the sidewalk does not.

    Motorcycles get much better fuel mileage but don’t look as “developed” as a fleet of taxis crawling at 2 mph through rush hour traffic.

    I took bike taxis once in a while and was always told “if policeman stops me say you are my boss”. No problem. The ride was cheap, fun and quick and I feared crossing the street most days more than being on those bikes.

    Lots of memories coming back, I used to live on the corner of Changshu road and Changle road.

  • 6 cmcelwee // Jan 17, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Greg I think you are correct about the motivation for the policing frenzy at the Changshu Road station. It’s not working. Walked down past your old haunt last night and then to the station– a mob scene of suitcase vendors of gloves and scarves, DVDs, earrings, handbags, belts, a baked yam salesman, and a guy selling CDs of US country western, show tunes, and elevator folk music (we were treated to a particularly treacly version of Scarborough Fair). As you note, however, it sure beats the scene at the intersection of Julu and Fumin Roads where the parked black Buicks, BMWs, and Bentleys have forced the pedestrians off the sidewalk and into the street. I wish the police would do something about that.

  • 7 Greg // Jan 19, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    Fumin and Julu Road. Is GuYi Hunan still around?

    I would also say that street cops like the fuzzy feeling of street vendors running in fear, if only to set up shop a couple of blocks down the road.

  • 8 cmcelwee // Jan 19, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    GuYi’s still there and continues to draw a crowd. It’s the hot pot place across Julu Road that runs the sidewalk parking lot.

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