On China’s Streets, Grisly Attempts to Cover-up Traffic Accidents

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The lesson of Watergate—it’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the cover-up—isn’t covered on China’s driving test. But perhaps it should be. In recent months the Chinese public has been shocked by multiple cases of drivers killing accident victims in hopes of evading legal responsibilities.

The most famous incident happened in October last year, when 21-year-old music student Yao Jiaxin hit a cyclist while driving in the northwestern city of Xi’an. After he noticed the cyclist was trying to memorize the license plate number of his car, Yao returned and stabbed her to death. While on trial for murder, Yao said he killed the woman, 26-year-old Zhang Miao, because she looked like a peasant and he feared she would hound him for compensation. Last month the Intermediate People’s Court of Xi’an sentenced Yao to death.

After Yao’s case received national attention, more cases have come to light. In December a truck driver who collided with a beggar in the southwestern city of Chongqing ran over her repeatedly in an attempt to avoid legal trouble. The driver, 21-year-old Tian Houbo, said he thought no one would notice the death of a beggar. And on Saturday, a driver in the southeastern city of Fuzhou who collided with a six-year-old girl ran over her a second time, according to reports. She was later pronounced dead.

China is a massive country, and it’s unlikely this handful of cases represent any sort of large-scale trend. But they have prompted national concern about the state of morality and values in China. These cases also speak of China’s yawning class divide, with wealthier citizens in cars assaulting poorer people on bikes and foot. Rather than represent a new phenomenon, it is likely that the prominence of the Yao Jiaxin case has elevated the profile of similar incidents elsewhere.

Earlier this year Sun Liping, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote in the Economic Observer, a Chinese weekly newspaper, about the phenomenon of “lifting the lid,” or how one small incident can lead to the revelation of a deeper series of problems. While he doesn’t mention the road deaths, Sun’s discussion of deteriorating social order seems apt, as the Yao Jiaxin case has prompted similar questions. Sun notes that during the Maoist era, socialist ideology formed the basic understanding of society. Then, beginning in the late 1970s, economic development dominated, Sun writes.

This transition was generally successful, and the idea led to over three decades of rapid economic development and served as the foundation for social harmony and stability.

But the new foundation of social development began to be questioned in the late 1990s by some sections of the population. For example, workers laid off by state-owned enterprises that were being restructured and members of the middle and lower classes began to ask what these ideas of economic development had to do with them.

From the mid-1990s onwards, development has not been persuasive enough to act as the core idea maintaining social balance. This is not to say that development should stop, but that we have not developed evenly in all aspects of society. Under these circumstances, a number of social problems and conflicts have arisen. This means that we are facing another period of transition, we need to shift the underlying justification and foundation of social action from simply being concerned with performance to one that is concerned with both performance and fairness.

Sun finds similar problems occurred during stages of rapid development in the West. He notes that in China it has been relatively easy to shift peoples’ ideology after Deng Xiaoping launched market reforms. But achieving the “harmonious society” sought by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, which means a more equitable division of wealth and stronger social safety nets for poorer citizens, has been difficult because of powerful vested interests. And that is perhaps what’s most disturbing about the recent traffic cases. Chinese citizens can see for themselves what a wealthy elite can do when they feel their interests are threatened.