Tea Leaf Nation

The Dangers of Driving While Female in China

Incidents of road rage there have spiked. So has the hostility toward women drivers.

A woman drives her car on a street in Shanghai on October 30, 2013. Suggestions given by the Beijing police department to women drivers in a series of microblog postings have sparked a backlash among Chinese Internet users who say the tips are sexually discriminatory.  AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS        (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman drives her car on a street in Shanghai on October 30, 2013. Suggestions given by the Beijing police department to women drivers in a series of microblog postings have sparked a backlash among Chinese Internet users who say the tips are sexually discriminatory. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

Anyone who has sat behind the wheel in Chinese traffic knows that driving in the world’s most populous country — with its frequent jams, high accident rate, and aggressive drivers who seem to take traffic laws as mere suggestions — can make even Los Angeles streets seem tranquil by comparison. But a recent string of violent assaults caused by road rage, or “lu nu” in Chinese, has further underscored the lack of civility on the country’s roads. As the number of private cars in China has surged, road rage incidents have spiked — and women have borne the brunt.

Beginning on May 3, a series of videos showing a male driver brutally assaulting a female driver for cutting him off on a city highway in Chengdu went viral on Chinese social media. According to the footage recorded by another car’s in-vehicle camera, the woman rapidly switched several lanes, cutting the man off, and attempted to race him. In response, the male driver swerved in front of the woman’s car, forcing it to stop, pulled the door open, hauled her out of her vehicle, and kicked her repeatedly in the head. The man, identified by the surname Zhang, later told reporters that the woman’s irresponsible driving had forced him to brake abruptly, causing his one-year-old daughter’s head to hit against the automobile window. But the beating left the woman, later identified as Lu Qin, hospitalized with broken ribs and a severe concussion.

Online reaction to this incident has been particularly virulent – in favor of the assailant. According to an online poll conducted by Hong Kong-based Phoenix that has collected around 773,000 responses to date, 68 percent of respondents said the incident was the full fault of the woman driver; 25 percent answered that both parties were at fault; and only six percent said the man should take responsibility. “Anyone would be angry when faced with a driver like this,” wrote one user in a widely echoed comment in the video channel of Sina, one of China’s most popular online news platforms. “I think she deserves to be beaten harder, and should never be allowed to drive again for the rest of her life.”

But antagonism towards the woman went even further. Chinese netizens – a group that’s 56 percent male — conducted a “human flesh search,” a crowd-sourced online research effort on an ordinary individual’s personal life, on the female driver. Web users not only identified her by name but also exposed her history of traffic rule violations (including running red lights, littering from the car and illegal parking) and other details of her personal life. Some even accused her of sexual promiscuity after discovering that she stayed in hotels about three times per month. The source and reliability of this information is unclear. Over 40 percent of respondents to the Phoenix survey said that this exposé was “justified, because she deserves a lesson.” Li Xiang, the male founder of Autohome.com, China’s most popular site on automobile-related information, wrote on May 6 in a popular comment on microblogging platform Weibo that “she is someone who commits immoral acts habitually. Even if this man does not beat her up,” Li reasoned, “she will be beaten up by someone else sooner or later.” Deluged with hostility, the female driver later publicly apologized by posting a letter on her Weibo account, promising to not commit the same mistakes again. “I sincerely apologize for my irrational and reckless driving behavior, and willingly accept any punishment.” The top comment to her apology, by a male user: “Serves you right. He hit you lightly, after all.”

Meanwhile, the male driver who committed the shocking attack has garnered little attention. This differential treatment may be due in part to the assumption, common in China, that female drivers are inexperienced and reckless, prompting some netizens to half-jokingly describe them as “killers on the road.”

Of course, there’s nothing funny about it. In a similar incident in the eastern province of Anhui that was also captured in a widely viewed video released a week after the Chengdu incident, a woman on an electric motorbike swerved slightly into the path of a man driving a three-wheeled trike. The man dismounted and attacked the woman, knocking her off her motorbike, then kicked her head repeatedly. The woman was so traumatized that she committed suicide the next day. Most comments to the video showing the assault condemned the man. But the most-shared comment reads, “The man made a mistake, but the woman deserved to be hit. If you break traffic laws, you should be punished,” adding without apparent irony, “we don’t want to encourage illegal behavior.”

To be sure, the phenomenon of road rage is not unique to China (66 percent of traffic fatalities in the U.S. are caused by aggressive driving). But it’s clearly prevalent there. According to Legal Daily, a state-owned newspaper that covers legal affairs in China, data from the Ministry of Public Security’s Traffic Management Bureau shows that the past three and a half years have seen over 104 million cases of anger-induced traffic violations in China, and such incidents have increased by 3.7 percent in the past four months alone. One in ten traffic accidents in China are caused by road rage. As the rate of private car ownership continues to soar, the importance of road courtesy only rises; but it often feels in scant supply. Traffic at busy intersections can feel like a jungle, where official rules are trumped by survival of the boldest. When exasperating traffic jams are coupled with pedestrians and motorists that habitually disregard traffic laws, drivers may be especially likely to commit acts of aggression.

Victims of road rage in China, of course, are not exclusively female. Among other recent incidents — a male driver who was stabbed with a knife repeatedly for cutting another male driver off, a driver who drove his car on top of another car, and an enraged truck driver who smashed a car’s rear window with his hand – women made no noted appearance. But the cases in both Chengdu and Anhui highlight that when women are the victims, they are especially vulnerable both to physical violence, and the public scorn that can follow.

AFP/Getty Images

Zara Zhang writes for the Harvard Crimson.

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