Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Refugee Camps for the Middle Class

A 100 kilometer traffic jam that's persisted for nine solid days on a highway west of Beijing this week is just another spectacle of the sort we've come to expect out of the growing nation - an epic traffic jam to complement its equally epic public works, skyscrapers, and factories.

Xinhua, a state-run news agency, reports that truck drivers are camped out on the jammed highway, playing cars amongst themselves and forced to buy supplies from opportunistic vendors at inflated prices. Reports printed in this morning's newspapers claimed that some drivers had managed only to move a mile over the course of an entire day on the road's worst stretches, and that the jam could last another month, until a road construction project ends.

All of these mythic reports come closely on the heels of news that China's economy has surpassed Japan's to become the world's second largest. The surreal traffic jam was an emblem of the nation's surreal growth and ambition.

But instead of delivering the promised capitalist paradise, an overdose of machinery and trade creates a sort of homeless gypsy encampment on the road to Beijing.

The news story reminded me of this scene in Week End, when bourgeois French families exercise their "freedom" to leave the city and enjoy the countryside, only to get imprisoned in an interminable traffic jam:

This scene itself was said to be inspired by Julio Cortazar's surrealist short story, "L'Autoroute du Sud," in which a Sunday afternoon traffic jam south of Paris dissolves into a days-long purgatory of survivalism and black market trade. Characters throughout the story are named only by the cars they occupy:
"Surprise would have been the last thing expressed by anyone at the way in which the water and supplies were being obtained. The only thing Taunus could do was manage the pot of money and try to barter as best he could. Ford Mercury and Porsche came every night to peddle their provisions; Taunus and the engineer took charge of distributing them, taking into consideration each person’s health. Incredibly, the old woman in the ID was still alive, lost in a stupor the women were trying to dissipate. The lady in the Beaulieu, who just a few days before had been vomiting and suffering from nausea, had recovered in the cold weather and and was one of those who helped the nun most with her companion, weak still and a little disoriented. The soldier’s wife and the woman from the 203 were minding the children; the travelling salesman, perhaps to distract himself from the fact that the girl in the Dauphine had preferred the engineer, spent hours telling them stories. At night the lives of the group took on a stealthy, more private character; the car doors would open silently to let in or out some shivering silhouette; no-one looked at anyone else, their eyes as blind as their very shadow. Beneath dirty anoraks, with overgrown fingernails, smelling of being confined in stale, old clothes, there was still a degree of happiness here and there."

- translation by Danny Fitzgerald

France's situation in the 1960s was similar to China's today: record-breaking economic growth after the war, greater mobility, and increasing status among the world's great nations. In both 1960s France and contemporary China, the traffic jam is a symbol of modern opportunity and success, but it's also a nervous reminder of the brutal, survivalist lifestyle that both nations had recently left behind. They're refugee camps for the new middle class.

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