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Drink-drive campaign sparks culture change
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Drink or drive? This is a dilemma for many Chinese in a society soaked in a centuries-old drinking culture which is now travelling in private motor cars.

For Liu Kun, a 25-year-old media worker in Beijing, the choice is simple and there is only one answer - she won't even have a sip of beer before she drives.

"I didn't treat it (drink driving) seriously before," said Liu, who has been driving for three years. "But now I obey the rules strictly."

Liu is one of many Chinese motorists sobering up and thinking twice about their onetime drinking and driving. This situation has been brought about by a spate of serious drink driving accidents in China, including fatalities. The situation has sparked a public outcry.

Chinese police launched a two-month nationwide crackdown against driving under the influence (DUI) two weeks ago, following a series of shocking cases in which drunk drivers killed pedestrians.

By last Friday, 28,880 drivers had been caught and punished for DUI, the Ministry of Public Security said.

The crackdown has brought about an unexpected boom to once sluggish businesses, such as drive-home services that help carry home drinkers by contracting relief drivers.

He Jin, chief executive of the Beijing Benaoanda Drive-back Company, said his company had carried home more than 110 customers every day in the past week, 20 times more than five years ago when his service was established. The company charges 80 yuan (US$12) for each journey. Now about seven or eight companies in Beijing are providing similar services, He said.

"Taking a cab is a cheaper way to carry a drinker back home. But many taxi drivers are rather reluctant to do it," said He.

Zhang Changyun, a Beijing taxi driver, said, "They always throw up in my cab. It's nasty. I can't use my cab for the whole day." Zhang always refuses to carry those who have been drinking heavily.

"That's our advantage. Car owners don't have to come back to the restaurants to retrieve cars in next day," He said. China's population, a large alcohol consumer, is now rapidly becoming mobile, putting more strain on controlling drink driving. In Beijing, a city of more than 15 million people, motor vehicles numbered 3.76 million in July.

"The market potential for a drive-home service is huge," He said.

Despite criticism that drive-home services could encourage drink driving, He defended them as necessary because "drinking at banquets is deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture."

Most of their drive-home contracts are taken out by big companies because "business talks at the dinner table with drinking is also a popular business culture in China," He said.

An indispensable part of dining etiquette in China is drinking toasts, and a lot of business is resolved at a drinking table rather than a negotiating one.

In addition, while declining a drink is deemed as "losing face," driving after drinking is sometimes considered heroic. In the commercial world it is apparently considered that the winner is the biggest drinker.

Wang Xiaokun, marketing manager of a real estate consultancy in southwest China's Chengdu City, has cut short the frequency of hosting business banquets since most of his clients who drive are knocking back drinking while dining.

He has mixed feelings toward the crackdown. "I don't like the drinking sessions," said Wang. "But without them, I must find other ways to buddy up to my clients."


Gao Zhifeng, 29, a government official in Beijing, welcomes the tight controls. "Thanks to the campaign, I'm now more justified to excuse myself from toast proposals by saying simply 'I drive,'" he said. He often did not handle drinking well, but frequently had his arm twisted to drink alcohol at business banquets.

Yi Rong, Gao's wife, said that tighter DUI law enforcement helped lessen the worries of drivers' families. "I'm so happy that China's alcohol culture is starting to change," said Yi.

Sales of alcohol-free beer, which contains little or no alcohol, are doing well because of the crackdown. Yu Li, manager of Veganhut, a health restaurant in Beijing's central business district, said: "We sell only alcohol-free beer and it's selling well. It's a new trend in dining."

Ding Guangxue, deputy chief executive of the Yanjing Beer Group, said the brewery's output of alcohol-free beer was more than 4 million bottles this month, a 10 percent year-on-year increase. The crackdown is worrying China's catering industry which makes large profits out of liquor, since beer sold at a restaurant can be priced much higher than in a supermarket.

Zhang Zhenjiang, general secretary of the Beijing Association for Liquor and Spirits Circulation, said: "We're worried that tighter control could dent profits and raise costs."

"Alcohol-free has only a small share of sales. It cannot replace ordinary liquor," said Zhang.

On the Internet, some netizens are suggesting restaurants be obliged to dissuade their driving customers from drinking.

But Fu Guiping, a corporate lawyer with Beijing Huatian Catering Group, said liquor outlets had no power or obligation to manage affairs that should be carried by the law enforcement sector.

"It's unfair to put responsibility on the shoulders of businesses," said Fu. "It calls for efforts from all walks of life."

(Shanghai Daily September 1, 2009)

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