The chaos shift

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 July, 2006, 12:00am

Only a brave man or woman attempts to regulate the traffic flow in Beijing. With 1,000 new cars arriving on the already jammed roads every day - and cyclists who jump red lights at every opportunity - the city's traffic is notoriously anarchic and seemingly uncontrollable. But bringing order to the chaos is what traffic wardens, or jiaotong xieguan, try and do every day.

At one of the busiest intersections in Dongcheng District in the heart of Beijing, a Mr Li - the only name he will give - and his three co-workers stand guard at the four corners of the junction. They are armed with red flags and whistles, and dressed in their summer uniforms of blue trousers, green shirts and blue baseball caps. Their job is to make sure cars, bikes and pedestrians don't clog the intersection. They work the morning rush hour from 8am to 11am, then return for the afternoon shift from 2pm to 5pm.

It's a thankless task. Most Beijing cyclists and pedestrians regard traffic signals as a guide at best, and don't take kindly to being stopped by a warden's outstretched arm. 'We have arguments with the cyclists every day. It's a good day if you don't get hit,' said Mr Li gloomily.

'We're not supposed to argue with them, but if they try to cross the road when the lights are red we have to stop them. But we can't really do anything if they don't obey us. We've got no right to fine them.'

Like nearly all of Beijing's 4,000 traffic wardens, Mr Li used to be employed by a state-run company. The 53-year-old went straight from school to working in a factory making decorative silk flowers. 'After the reforms it became a private enterprise, but the bosses were too corrupt, and so the factory went bankrupt in 2003,' he says during a brief tea break with his co-workers.

Mr Li had no income, and lacked the skills needed to find a decent-paying job. He faced a plight common to the millions of middle-aged men and women who grew up expecting to spend their working lives in the cocoon of the state. His long years of service in a state company earned him a recommendation for his job as a traffic warden, but neither Mr Li nor his three co-workers are happy. They earn 600 yuan a month, and the first thing they ask is if they can get paid for being interviewed.

I offer cigarettes instead, and listen to their complaints about their poor working conditions. 'It's much worse than working for a state enterprise,' said Mr Li. 'They can sack you at any time, and we don't get medical insurance. They don't even give us money so we can get a drink when we've been working in the hot sun.' His friend, a 50-year-old former salesman, is far more blunt about their status. 'We are like beggars, not workers,' he says.