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Brick of a guy hurls rocks at snob culture
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An angry old man hurled bricks at 14 automobiles running red lights in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, in an "ambush" that was clearly illegal but applauded by many Netizens.

By yesterday afternoon, more than 700,000 votes cast by Netizens on qq.com, one of China's largest news portals, supported the old man's action last Thursday night. Nearly 150,000 were opposed. On sina.com, another major news portal, about 330,000 votes were cast in favor of the old brick of a guy, while about 80,000 were opposed.

Why did the overwhelming majority of Netizens on two of China's largest news portals support a clearly illegal action?

Indeed, running red lights is illegal, but smashing those cars - damaging property and endangering lives - is also beyond the law.

Yan Zhengping, a 74-year-old retired teacher of Chinese literature, admitted in an interview with Beijing News yesterday that what he did was illegal, but asked: "What else could I do?"

So far, police have not punished him for his violent attacks, they have chosen to increase patrols at night to stop drivers from running red lights.

Xinhua news agency said on Saturday that many onlookers were sympathetic with the old man and cheered him each time he hit a car running afoul of traffic lights and laws.

His "popularity" is understandable, given the pedestrians' widespread anger towards many drivers who flaunt their status as a car-owner in a culture that now calls it glorious to be rich.

Although I doubt the effectiveness of Yan's attacks even if they were legal - our times have produced so much arrogance that you can't possibly smash it off the road - I understand what drove him crazy.

More than 60 percent of Netizens on qq.com attributed Yan's attacks to the failure of traffic police to do their job, while about 30 percent said it was the morally deficient drivers who had drawn Yan's ire. The rest of the Netizens said it was too complicated an issue to be answered in a black-or-white way.

Shunning the poor

Bao Xiaoxia, a senior researcher at the Academy of Social Sciences of Gansu Province, was quoted in an interview with Xinhua on Saturday as saying that urban planning was also to blame, because there was no pedestrian overpass in Yan's neighborhood to help people cross the roadway.

"In many cities, officials focus too much on grandiose and tangible projects, while neglecting or ignoring such small things as pedestrian safety," she said.

While poor urban planning and lack of police enforcement are surely to blame, there's a danger of overlooking the No. 1 factor that fueled Yan's outrage: a culture that tends to stigmatize the poorer - in this case, the pedestrians, those don't own a car or choose not to drive. That only 30 percent of Netizens on qq.com blamed it on arrogant drivers is a testament to this danger.

While it's natural for many people to resent law enforcement staff for their ineffectiveness or inaction at a time when official corruption or incompetence runs wild in certain regions, it's naive to believe that stricter law enforcement holds the key to better traffic behavior by drivers.

It's education that matters most. Most American and Japanese drivers respect pedestrians because they are taught to be so, not because they fear a traffic ticket and fine.

Confucius says that people will become shameless and lawless if they are ruled only by law, but they will behave correctly if they are taught to be moral.

Confucius might have put too much faith in moral education, but haven't we put too little faith in teaching values?

Yan's actions are illegal and ineffective indeed, but they are a belated reminder of our collective amnesia about the ills of snobbish culture.

(Shanghai Daily July 14, 2009)

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