GUANGZHOU, China—When officials decided that swarms of motorcycles and scooters had become a plague on the streets of this huge city, they didn't wobble in their course of action.
The solution? Ban motorcycles.
As of Jan. 1, the city's 260,000 or so registered motorcycles will be forced off the roads. Tens of thousands of people who use the vehicles to make deliveries or otherwise earn livings must turn in their motorcycles or take them out of the city.
After six decades in control, Communist officials are accustomed to issuing sweeping draconian edicts such as this, confident that they unfailingly act for the benefit of all. Citizens end up angry but are helpless to act on their frustrations. They simply must accept what the one-party state decides to hand to them.
Recent days have provided other examples. On Dec. 1, Shanghai shut its Pudong international airport with no warning, rerouting or turning back domestic and international flights for several hours. The reason for the rare closure was deemed a state secret. Some media hinted that it might have been for an anti-terrorism drill.
A day later, 10,000 homes in Urumqi, the largest city in far west China, were left without heat for four days in sub-freezing temperatures. A coal-fired boiler blew out because the city had bought substandard coal. As some residents rushed to buy electric heaters, the power utility said it would proceed with scheduled power outages Dec. 4-8 to upgrade its system, leaving masses of residents not only shivering but also without power.
"We never thought the upgrading project would coincide with the suspension of heating, but some old equipment is dangerous and must be replaced," Zhao Hongjun, a municipal power official, told state media.
Officials show little concern for the inconvenience they cause.
"These guys have no sense of civil rights. There's no consultation," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong. "They don't have this belief that stakeholder rights have to be respected. They just have this abstract sense of the public good."
One of the most recent examples is in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, the center of an industrial zone that manufactures everything from cars to golf clubs.
The city is China's fifth-largest auto market, with 900,000 vehicles jamming its roads. Adding to traffic problems, motorcycle and scooter prices have plunged, causing throngs of residents to eagerly turn to two-wheeled motorized transport. Apart from the 260,000 registered motorcycles, another 100,000 unregistered ones ply the streets, as well as 100,000 or so electric bicycles. The ill effects have accumulated.
City officials blame exhaust-spewing motorcycles for increased pollution and other problems. Motorcycles were involved in about half the city's accidents last year, when crashes left 311 people dead, according to the public security office, and snatch-and-run gangs of thieves menace pedestrians. Through the first nine months of this year, police tallied 3,432 cases of robbers using motorcycles.
Guangzhou isn't the first city in China to ban or sharply limit motorcycles, scooters and electric bikes. Shanghai and Beijing also do so to some degree. But Guangzhou is taking action after hundreds of thousands of consumers have already bought the vehicles.
"It's definitely unfair," said Huang Shugen, a 58-year-old retired train driver. "I spent 30,000 yuan (about $3,800) on the motorcycle together with the license plate."
But Chinese have learned through decades of Communist rule that there's little sense in fighting policy changes.
Beijing maintains a firm grip in many areas of life, such as a one-child policy for most families. In rural areas, where unrest is rising, farmers largely have protested over land seizures, often because they think corruption is involved. Otherwise, many Chinese see their lives improve on the crest of steady economic growth, and that has given them patience, political scientists say.
On other matters, especially in the cities, officials implement policies and consider public opinion largely as an afterthought.
"They take these steps and see if people moan and groan. The downstream consequences are not considered very much," said Russell Leigh Moses, a U.S. political scientist based in Beijing. "These guys are interested in managerial efficiency."
Traffic planners in the West can only dream of the freedom that traffic engineers in cities like Guangzhou have in imposing measures with little regard to public opinion.
"Public participation is really great—I wouldn't trade it for anything—but there are inefficiencies. The idea behind this is to avoid becoming like Taipei or Hanoi, to avoid cities becoming full of dirty, two-stroke type of vehicles," said Christopher Cherry, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Berkeley writing a dissertation on sustainable transportation in China.
Guangzhou authorities are offering some compensation, depending on the age of the motorcycle or scooter, often amounting to $100 to $200. Owners also receive about $8 for the scrap value of their vehicles. Officials say they'll give some job training to those who needed their motorcycles to earn livings, but they haven't provided details.
Junkyards are already filling up with motorcycles. At the Huawu Recycling Co. scrap yard, in the shadow of Guangzhou's Olympic Stadium, some 20,000 motorcycles, carrying such brand names as Xingfu, Luhao, Senkou and Zhujiang, fill the fields.
"After the ban, there won't be many motorcycles on the streets. It will improve the traffic. Accidents will be reduced, and motorcycle robberies will be reduced," manager Ye Quanyong said.
Some citizens are dubious of the reasons for the ban, wondering if officials are seeking to promote usage of public transportation or even stimulate car sales.
One of the consequences of the motorcycle ban might well be more cars on city streets. As it is now, 150,000 or so new vehicles are added in Guangzhou each year.
Huang Weiying, the owner of a 125cc red Pearl River brand motorcycle, said he wasn't too unhappy about having to give it up.
"I just bought a small car," he said, a blue Chinese-made Chang'an sedan.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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