For a modern city, the parking meter is a requisite device that charges motorists for the use of space and generates revenue for the city. It shows the municipality is conscious of the relationship between space, time and money.
This year, Beijing plans to install some 6,000 parking meters. In other countries, such a move would be seen as a way to save on labour, but in China the logic is questionable.
Five years ago, parking meters made a brief appearance on some Beijing streets. However, attendants were still needed - to tell people how to use the machines, help them get the correct change and to check on those who tried to get away without paying. Then there was the fact that they needed to patrol the area to stop the meters being vandalised. In a short time, meters were covered with a plastic bag marked 'out of order', and were removed soon afterwards.
Now, Beijing is spending 60 million yuan to install new meters, which instead of taking coins, require motorists to swipe prepaid cards.
Critics complain of the cost of installing these imported meters, when the 60 million yuan would be enough to hire 120 attendants for 10 years.
Beijing people moan that city officials are spending taxpayers' money without thinking things through. It seems that the meters have all the qualities of the proverbial white elephant. Certainly the dictionary definition would back that up. It says a white elephant is 1) a rare, expensive possession that is a financial burden to maintain; 2) something of dubious or limited value; 3) an endeavour or venture that proves to be a conspicuous failure; and 4) a rare whitish Asian elephant, often regarded with special veneration in regions of Southeast Asia and India.
OK, so the last one may be a stretch. But in ancient times, keeping a white elephant proved very expensive, as the animal needed special food, while there had to be access for the people who came to worship it. Legend says that if the king of Siam wanted to punish a courtier, he would be given a sacred white elephant. The elephant could not be disposed of or used for work, and the expense of its upkeep would ruin the courtier.
The Chinese language, with its supple richness, has no equivalent in its figurative sense; yet people may very soon become aware of these burdens.
All over China, there are deserted industrial parks, barely travelled toll roads and half-finished property developments - not to mention Shanghai's Maglev train. One economist suspects that if the cost of all these ill-conceived projects over the two decades of reform were added up, the total would exceed all the corruption that people complain about. Yet, no one is held accountable for these horrendous losses.