Thursday, October 29, 2009

Don't say I didn't warn you

My blog-friend Tony, of the eternally diverting Other Men's Flowers, yesterday forwarded me a link for the latest James Fallows article in The Atlantic, on the alarming topic of environmental health problems in China (Mr Fallows has but recently returned to the States after a long posting in China, and has been wondering how many years he might have knocked off his lifespan).
This is a recurring concern of mine, since I tend to suffer almost continual respiratory illnesses throughout the autumn and winter months (and other, weirder, more alarming ailments from time to time), and four people within my sphere of acquaintance have died of cancer within the last couple of years (quite young people, who were otherwise in good health). Fallows tries to be as bullish as he can about the prospects for recovery or survival if you limit your exposure to China - but the underlying message is pretty bleak: if you spend a long number of years here, it's probably going to kill you much sooner than if you'd stayed back home; and it definitely isn't a good place to bring up children.
However, perhaps the most alarming statistic in the whole article was this: the number one cause of death among foreign Embassy staff in Beijing is road traffic accidents.
Yes, you read that right.  They're usually on fairly short rotations, you see, only out here for two or three years, not long enough to develop any of those threatened chronic health problems; but there is no getting away from the short-sightedness, incompetence, and sheer homicidal aggression of Chinese drivers.
I touched on this problem in one of my very first posts (although at that time I wasn't disclosing the fact that I was in China), and many more times subsequently (try searching the site for terms like 'accidents', 'drivers', 'road traffic', and 'wrong way'.... or indeed 'homicidal').
The official figure for 'road deaths' in China is over 100,000 per year (or it was, the last time I looked; probably much higher now that the number of cars on the roads has again doubled in just a few years); that is, or was, more than 5 times the worldwide average for deaths per number of vehicles.  And that figure is, almost certainly, grossly under-reported.
I know from bitter experience (I worked at the Beijing Bureau of Statistics for a while) how vague, unreliable, or simply fabricated most such figures coming out of China are.  The chaps at the Bureau mostly had no concern about methodology whatsoever: they were utterly incurious as to how the raw data they received had been compiled or what it could truly be said to represent.  They just did their number-crunching on it, and collated it into reports, as they were required to do, without ever raising a question about any of it. 
You see, I wouldn't be at all surprised if 'road deaths' in the statistics compiled in China is a completely undefined term.  I wouldn't be surprised if it only includes people who die in vehicles, not pedestrians killed by vehicles.  I wouldn't be surprised if it excludes bicycles (and even motor scooters and electric bicycles).  And even if it is just people killed in vehicles, I'd bet it's still a gross under-estimate.  A lot of road traffic fatalities never get logged at all: out in the country, bodies of victims just get tossed in a ditch, and later recorded as 'cause of death: unknown' by local police; here in the cities, hospitals - I'm told - are actually discouraged from being too fastidious in their record-keeping about this kind of thing.
I should think that deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents must be well over 1 million per year in China: it is carnage out there.  (And, since healthcare in general and emergency response in particular is still so poor here, a very high percentage of injuries end up being fatal.)
Just about every foreigner I know who's lived here more than a few years has witnessed a fatality on the road; most have been involved in some sort of accident; one nearly lost a leg after being hit by a truck.  I myself have seen at least three fatalities on the streets of Beijing - all people who'd been knocked off bicycles (nobody wears helmets).
Be careful when you're crossing the road here.  Very, very careful indeed.
[That very first post on the dreadful driving standards in this country was part of a series of oblique commentaries on China which I tagged as 'Where in the world am I?'.  I discontinued this when I 'came out' about living in China, but I still think this was one of the strongest strands I've written on the blog, and I do commend you to go back and check out more of these posts.]

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