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Our `Accidental' Motorist

Traffic melees and swindlers' efforts to turn a fast buck vex foreign drivers in more open China

THE bicyclist seemed miffed.

"Stop! Stop! Accident! Accident!" he screamed, grabbing hold of the car and peddling along as I inched through the dizzying swirl of cars and bicycles in the busy streets of Tianjin.

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Just moments before, he had ridden alongside my car, tumbled off his bicycle, and then accused me of bumping him. Afraid of drawing a belligerent crowd, I drove to the next intersection where I pulled over and a policeman intervened. Immediately, we were surrounded by dozens of onlookers. Egged on by the bicyclist and a woman companion, the crowd became tense and pressed in before more police arrived and, to our relief, hustled us away to a nearby station.

Such staged accidents are a worrying new occupational hazard for foreign drivers in China. Boulevards and roads, once byways reserved mainly for that most communist of vehicles, the bicycle, are today crowded with the products of new capitalist freedoms.

In the last year, hundreds of thousands of new cars, domestic and imported, have taken to the road. China produced more than a million motorized vehicles in 1992, a 56 percent jump over the previous year.

In Beijing alone, motor vehicles, a symbol of new wealth, increased 70 percent, according to the English-language China Daily.

Add to that hundreds of thousands of bicyclists who don't stick to bike lanes, pedestrians who wander off curbs and down the middle of the road, and even a few horsecarts.

The resulting chaos is prime picking for swindlers, who seem to abound in today's China. Many foreign drivers and cyclists tell horror stories of "accidents" that resulted in hefty fines, demands for compensation, or the confiscation of their bicycles.

Western embassies worry that, despite the welcome mat for overseas investment, preying on Western motorists is one sign of resurgent antiforeign sentiment in China. "With all the crime and traffic incidents, I'm not sure this is a good place for my family," frets a European diplomat who was involved in a car accident that drew a threatening crowd.

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The police, widely believed to be corrupt, are often part of the scam. Money extorted from foreigners usually includes a cut for the local cops, diplomats say.

So far, China's cities have made only modest attempts to grapple with the congestion. The southern city of Guangzhou has floated the incredible idea of banning bicycles, while Beijing already prohibits motorcycles.

This summer, in a show of new professional resolve, Beijing traffic police are wearing jaunty new uniforms with ties, white hats, and matching gloves. Aviator sunglasses add an intimidating touch.

But that hasn't helped much. The hubbub continues unabated, taking 50,000 lives a year in China, the world's highest traffic fatality rate. That's about the same as the United States where there are 14 times more vehicles.

Tianjin, an industrial hub east of Beijing, has a particularly bad reputation for traffic scams. When we arrived at the police station, my husband, two friends, and I were forced to sit in our car for an hour and a half while someone from the foreigners' police arrived.

The official was visibly nervous at the detention of a foreign journalist who could cause great embarrassment. "This is a small, small incident," he said apologetically. I agreed and pressed to settle the matter. But the cyclist, backed up by the station's chief, claimed I should pay $70 to replace the bicycle, which seemed fine except for a scratch that did not appear very recent.

After negotiations with the cyclist, the official at last announced that a $2.50 fine would make things right. Eager to end the two-hour ordeal, I backed out of the station and pulled away, glancing in the rearview mirror to see the policemen waving a cheery goodbye.

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