China is building new roads faster than any place in history, and has recently passed Japan as the country with the second-greatest total length of roadway after the US. China had 18.5 km of expressways in 1988, and now has 53,000 km. This has occasioned a great deal of tearing up and laying down. Guangzhou, preparing now for the Asia games at the end of this year, is in a particular frenzy of road-building, resurfacing and general traffi-cide. Nearly every section of the route I ride to work has been torn up and re-paved in the last several months, some abandoned in mid-demolition: littered with heaved-up chunks of asphalt and dotted with unexpected trenches, piles of rubble and open manhole covers. China’s tortured roadways are a metaphor for a China that grows, changes and sheds its skin at a pace that is simply bewildering to its residents, let alone to foreign observers. I’m reminded of a recent essay by Peter Hessler, one of the finest foreign writers on modern China, about returning to rural America after a decade of living in Beijing. The pace of change was dizzyingly, disorientingly slow by contrast: his neighbors would gather excitedly to discuss the installation of a new traffic light in town. In Guangzhou, I always ride slowly after I’ve been off the road for even 24 hours: nothing spoils your day quite like the appearance without warning of a meter-deep trench, freshly dug and tucked in for the night under a road-grey tarpaulin...
As a bicyclist, or any participant in Chinese urban traffic, one is unavoidably aware of being… monitored. Traffic police, white-gloved, leather-booted, equipped with slogan-bearing red flags and appropriately-menacing dark glasses, are at nearly every major intersection during rush hour, and they are quite active participants in the traffic dance. I have been pulled off my bike by them on a few occasions. As with the application of any Chinese laws, however, the process of adjudication is highly negotiable: bicyclists speeding across a road in the middle of a walkway