China’s car industry has been booming and the country has become the biggest car market in the world. The old bicycle nation is on its way to become a nation on wheels. As income level grows and vehicle prices drop, Chinese consumers have become over zealous about owning a car. They have the money and a wide range of cars to choose from, all they need is a driver’s license.
Getting a driver’s license can be tricky in China. What complicates the matter is connection—a prerequisite for doing almost everything. You need to have connections from womb to tomb. Yes, I am not kidding. If you want to reserve a bed before giving birth to your baby, you need connections; if you want to buy a small patch of land to bury your ashes, you need connections too. The concept is ingrained in people’s mind and it permeates every corner of Chinese society.
I’ve been working and didn’t take driving too seriously, so until now, I haven’t had a driver’s license. Feeling the peer pressure, I enrolled myself in a driving class in 2010. Those private training schools were ill-equipped. Six to seven students shared one old VW sedan that sounded like a tractor. I had to wait 1-2 hours before I could sit behind the wheel. When I did get in a car, air conditioners were not allowed to be turned on, so I was baked by the beaming sun. After a few days, I could no longer stand the endless waiting and heat, so I became a dropout—the first time in my life.
When I went home this summer, suddenly everybody around me had a driver’s license. They told me stories about slipping packs of expensive cigarettes into driving coaches’ pockets, inviting them to dinners, buying them drinks, and so on. Only when you follow these footsteps are you given more guidance and more time to practice. But there’s more. When you take an actual driving test, you have to pass red envelopes stuffed with money to examiners, otherwise, he will fail you. Since there are millions of people wanting to get driver’s license, you need to pull strings to get on a waiting list of would-be test takers.
Having connections does feel good, although I know it creates unfair competition. The Chinese think if you don’t take advantage of privileges when you have them, you are dumb; privileges can expire. I personally experienced how connections can turn things around in Chinese society.
I was only in driving school for a few days and didn’t know how to drive at all, so I was not eligible for the driving test. But my connections qualified me for the test and I cut the line of countless people waiting in dismay. Ordinarily, people are supposed to take a computer test and an actual driving test. But I didn’t even need to bother. My connections got the driving part done for me, so all I had to do was to show up at the computer room and "take" the test.
After driving a long way from downtown, I arrived to the site where about a hundred men and women nervously waited for their names to be called. They formed small circles to exchange experiences and techniques they heard from previous test takers. They looked very anxious because they’d invested lots of time and money into this and re-taking the test was the last thing they wanted to do. Standing alone in the distance, I quietly observed these people, thinking to myself “what’s the big deal?”
I waited hours and saw people going into the room and test ground and coming out. Some appeared relieved and happy when they finished and some looked as if they lost their souls. It was around 12:30 when a policeman in uniform came out the room and told people to go home. "We are off. Come back after 2:30," the man said. Some left disappointed but some still hung around. I also stayed.
When those good fellows were gone, the guy in uniform came out again with a list. He called out people’s names and it suddenly dawned on me that those who stayed all had serious connections. They were better dressed, appearing more confident than the crow that had left, and they seemed to know the result of the test which they hadn’t taken.
We were led by the cop into a room with rows of old desktops. The lights were dim and I could smell dust in the air. A senior officer stood in the front of the room and called each of our names. We were seated, with an empty chair sitting between two people. I was full of questions. I didn’t know how on earth I could pass the test because I had never studied traffic rules and never drove.
As the test began, the senior officer said: "Everybody stay put. Don’t touch your mouse and keyboard. We will come to do for you, one by one." I was in shock and couldn’t believe my ears. The officer stood there and looked very serious. A computer nerd looking guy came down from the podium and stopped by my side. He took my mouse and started clicking it.
There were 100 multiple choice questions and the nerd used less than 5 minutes to finish all of them. In order to make people believe, he intentionally chose some wrong answers. Each computer had a webcam attached to the screen, which was used to make sure the test takers were who they claimed to be. The nerd sat on empty seats placed between people so that cameras would not catch his face.
Next month, I will probably get my driver’s license. There is a Chinese term called "malu shashou (road killer)," which refers to inexperienced drivers. If I were to drive, I would be a "killer" myself.
I later learned that that entire traffic police department was run by one family, like the mafia The head of the department hired many of his relatives; even the guard at the front gate was from his family and was on government payroll.
My experience wasn’t unique to my region and it’s only one of countless things that can only be accomplished by having connections. I used to believe there is fairness in China’s society. Now I don’t.