70 kph, indifference, and the rule of law


A traffic accident that occurred in Hangzhou on May 7 has given rise to a new online meme: 70码.

Pronounced qīshí mǎ, “70 kph,” it refers to the speed police initially said that Hu Bin, the driver, was going when he struck and killed Tan Zhuo. Witnesses put Hu’s speed at above 100 kph, and popular discontent with a suspected police cover-up made the claimed speed an online catch-phrase.

In addition to the numeric version, there’s also 欺实码, which can be interpreted as something like “phony number,” and 欺实马, “phony horse,” an answer to the Grass Mud Horse craze earlier this year.

But unlike online memes of the past — “I just came out for soy-sauce” or the Grass Mud Horse, whose opaque surface meaning hides a fairly straightforward connotation — qishi ma is a little more confusing.

To gear-heads, the 码 () in 70码 usually means miles per hour (variants are 迈 and 麦, both pronounced mài), and that’s what appears on the t-shirt shown here. But seventy miles per hour would work out to around 112 kilometers per hour in China’s usual units, more than twice the speed limit of the typical city street.

No one would have faulted the police for citing the driver for traveling at 112 kph, which is faster than even the revised estimate of 81-101 kph the police subsequently released. But the controversy was over the fact that by initially citing him for going 70 kph, the police allowed him to avoid the stiffer penalties handed out to drivers who exceed the posted limit (in this case, 50 kph) by 50%.

Late last week, entertainment journalist He Dong posted an interesting response to the incident on his blog. It’s a meditation on how the rule of law suffers when the authorities respond to or attempt to suppress public opinion:

What’s constantly drowned out by the overall situation

by He Dong

I’ve gotten lots of comments and private messages asking me why I haven’t written anything about the rich young man of Hangzhou who struck and killed a college student at “70 kph.”

Although I’ve had a driver’s license for more than ten years, I’ve never owned my own car, and I’ve never even touched a steering wheel since coming out of driving school. Right now, apart from knowing to stop the motor scooter at a red light and proceed at a green light, I’m completely worthless on the specifics of violating traffic laws in a modern metropolis. So my thinking was, if it’s something I genuinely don’t understand, I can only suppressing my anger like everyone else, and not presume to speak out of turn. Otherwise, if I have to speak on every topic that anyone brings up, then next time when a plane has a mid-flight problem and crashes, do I have to open my mouth on another topic I’m uninformed about?


欺实马, the phony horse

But there are two points on which I will open my mouth:

First, between the day I first entered the driving school many years ago and the day I received my license, I made the decision not to buy a car. Why? From the driving school to traffic cops on the streets, why did everything seem semi-gangland? Having to pay tribute to instructors when learning to drive and suffering their tongue-lashings every day (I don’t know if things have improved since then). It didn’t seem like I’d paid thousands of yuan to the driving school; instead, it was like I was indebted to them from several previous lifetimes. I had the thought that if simply learning to drive was like that, why would I want to buy a car and spend all my time being pushed around on the road? So I just dropped it.

Second, even to this day, although I take extra special care when I go out of doors, I frequently feel unsafe on China’s urban roads.

Lots of times, I’ve nearly been cut apart riding my own scooter down the road, and whenever an impressive vehicle comes barrelling past me, it’s hardly ever a private car or a taxi; it’s an Audi A6 or better with a police light on the roof. Or else, it’s a black Audi flying down the road bearing some mystifying license plate I can’t decipher but which is legible to the police.

Therefore, even living in a place like Beijing that claims to be the best, fear is the first feeling you get going out on the road. And this fear stems from far more than just a single factor.

Han Han had the following line on his blog: “It’s a problem of indifference. I believe we’re generally indifferent, and although the driver in this accident, along with his friends, behaved particularly indifferently, this is nothing unique to them. We can ship thousands upon thousands of cats to eat, and slaughter hundreds upon hundreds of dogs, and law enforcement essentially doesn’t treat people as human beings. In every ideological or united-thought campaign, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions of people suffer: the actions of our parents’ generation inform us just how much people matter.”

I think this gets into the root of the issue.

Last year, for example, was a special year, so the overall situation drowned out everyone. This years is another special year, so the overall situation is drowning out everyone. If the overall situation always overwhelms everything, what do people matter?

And when “what do people matter?” endures through the years, then of course indifference is inevitable, and even entirely natural.

Yang Jia at first complained to law enforcement but no one paid any attention to his repeated appeals, so he took to violence and wiped out several lives in an instant. When you are indifferent to me, I express my even more vehement indifference by taking lives. This is the true vicious cycle of human indifference.

Now the overall situation this year is more special than last year’s, so the overriding concern of newspapers and TV stations is to bury lots of issues and attempt to minimize the large and eliminate the small. My eyes stray fairly widely this year and frequently come across newsworthy tidbits which I then report to a TV station or newspaper, but they tell me delicately: Sorry Mr. He, our superiors have ordered that this or that can’t be reported! Didn’t you notice that even the performances to commemorate the anniversary of the 5.12 were able to generate a festival atmosphere following the mourning? It’s because an objective has been handed down: grief must turn into celebration.

Fortunately, we now have an Internet that gives headaches to all propaganda departments and local chiefs, so the large often can’t be minimized, and the small even more frequently can’t be eliminated. It is for this reason the Hangzhou police are now contracting like a rubber band from their “70 kph” judgment, retreating bit by bit.

However, if laws and regulations can advance or retreat in response to the degree of online fury, then can there be any strict enforcement of our laws and regulations, or any meaning to them at all?

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