The Steam Machines

Beijing, 1985. China is ruled by the bicycle, without a whiff of petrol in sight. America is deep in the golden age of cars, but China’s roads are still sleeping, anticipating the arrival of loud horns and impatient drivers hidden behind a safe screen of glass. There are only 5,200 cars in all of China – one for every 25,000 people. A desire for consumer goods is politically radical, and personal spending is a thing of shame.

In 1989, Beijing published a news article all over the world telling of a chicken farmer near Beijing being the first peasant to own a car. The story was almost entirely false – she couldn’t drive, had never set foot in a car, and her husband was actually an official. But the news came loud and clear to the rest of the world; China is open to business. Car sales increased exponentially, the latest thing everyone needed to buy. Experts predicted that the demand for cars would increase 6 times between 2000 and 2010, instead, 20 times the number of cars were bought. And this isn’t just your run of the mill – hundreds of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches are being sold to China’s modern millionaires.


This huge influx of cars in the last decade or so has brought China’s streets a huge influx of new drivers, who aren’t the most experienced. Dangerous weaving, using your phone, not wearing a seatbelt or even just liberal use of the horn are commonplace. Only since about 2000 have more than the elite had cars, so being in a car must be proof that you’re superior. And there’s also just the brute fact that nobody cares. People are bad at driving, and there’s nothing anyone does to stop that. Forget etiquette – driving in China? You’re either at the front or you’re going down.

Things I’ve learned this week:

  • Peasants with cars is the new propaganda

  • No one cares if you’re a really terrible driver

  • Etiquette? Good one. Try again, not on China’s streets.

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