Fast & Furious in China: Beijing's underground racing scene
The culture of street racing continues to thrive in China's capital despite police crackdowns
The scene is something out of The Fast and the Furious movies: lavish, neon-coloured cars taking off from a starting point, each controlled by drivers who enjoy the rush as they pilot their vehicles through the night at speeds of up to 150 kilometres per hour.
The surroundings, however, are different from the Los Angeles or Tokyo city streets that have appeared in the popular series of racing films.
This is Beijing, a city where the illegal street racing community may be less mature than its overseas counterparts, but no less intense.
Inspired by a love for modified automobiles, high-stakes speeding and the intrigue of an underground racing world popularised by films such as The Fast and the Furious and other media from neighbouring Japan and South Korea, racers in China’s capital city have been gunning for the finish line for the past decade.
Gathering at night in areas around the Bird’s Nest Stadium or Beijing’s Second Ring Road, the racers are usually young, with a taste for fashion and a shared mutual appreciation of cars.
According to one racer, interviewed by Beijing Evening News under the name Xiao Song, Beijing’s underground racing world is very much dominated by cliques, where participants race against each other for respect and camaraderie, not money.
“I’m in a club,” Xiao Song reportedly said. “We’re very familiar with each other … and we have rules. You’re forbidden from looking down on the cars of other members, and we organise activities like dinners and movies [for each other]. Club members are restricted from earning money in any way.”
Clubs like Xiao Song’s advertise membership through internet forums and microblogs, where the criteria can be surprisingly strict. According to Xiao Song, becoming a member of his club requires youth – all members must be born after 1980 – and a sports car worth more than 600,000 yuan (HK$760,000).
“The age and price limitation are there to bring like-minded enthusiasts together,” Xiao Song said. “That way, everyone can chat about similar things, and most people will be able to afford similar cars.”
Xiao Song, who admitted that most racers had “relatively wealthy family backgrounds,” added that there were over 300 members in his club, including non-Beijing residents from provinces like Shandong and Shaanxi.
Despite the social excitement that street racing offers, it is still an illegal activity. After remaining under the radar for years, racers began to face repercussions from Beijing authorities in 2006, when Chen Zhen, a well-known member of a club, was arrested and held in police custody for a week under charges of endangering public security.
According to China.org.cn reports, Chen was known as the “13 minute boy,” a moniker given to those skilled enough to drive the whole of Beijing’s 32.87 kilometre Second Ring Road in only 13 minutes – an achievement that required speeds of at least 151 kilometres per hour on a road with a maximum limit of 80 kilometres per hour.
Chen’s arrest greatly slowed the fervour of the Beijing racing scene, and participants began moving from main roads to backstreets. In 2009, Beijing’s racers became even quieter after an incident in Hangzhou where a 25-year-old man named Tan Zhou was hit and killed by a Mitsubishi EVO driven by a local student who had been participating in a race.
The student, named Hu Bin, was arrested two weeks after the incident and given a three year jail term for vehicular manslaughter, but not before the internet ran rampant with endless speculation that Hu’s wealthy family had tried to hush the matter up.
After these incidents, the dangerous consequences of street racing were launched into the national consciousness, and reports condemning racers appeared in Chinese media consistently.
In early September 2013, perhaps as a result of the notoriety that racers had attracted, the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau issued a report outlining measures designed to crack down on what was called “competitive driving behaviour.”
These measures include increased monitoring of popular racing roads and more stringent vehicle inspections designed to catch drivers who had illegally modified their automobiles, the official China News Agency reported.
While these efforts may have scaled down the scope of Beijing’s racing scene, Xiao Song told Beijing Evening News reporters that there were still drivers in the city thirsty for the thrill of the chase.
“Some people like soccer, some people like playing video games,” Xiao Song said. “We like to race cars. Just like how a soccer player wants to buy the best sneakers, whenever we see a good-looking car, we just want to get in, modify the engine a bit and take it for a spin."
When asked about safety concerns, Xiao Song added that most of the clubs had moved their races away from populated roads and into quieter areas that held little risk of accidents.
"I sincerely hope that one day Beijing will have more real racing spaces," Xiao Song said. "We don’t want to go racing on crowded city streets either.”