In China we usually couldn’t wear seat belts even if we wanted to. Taxi drivers have them tucked into the seats to get them out of the way, or they’re dirty and hard to pull out from lack of use. But recently I’ve noticed a lot of taxi drivers doing this:
They’ve started wearing the seat belt without clicking it into place. Every time I ask them they tell me how much money and how many points they’ll lose if a traffic camera catches them without a seat belt (something like 6 points and a few hundred 元 — I forget exactly but it’s steep).
Thoughts like: “I drive all day every day, maybe wearing this thing properly would be worth it” or “Since I’m pulling this thing over my lap anyway, I might as well click it into place and benefit” apparently haven’t crossed anyone’s mind. But how could they not?
Sure, it could just be that they don’t like feeling restricted. But I have a theory:* Chinese attitudes toward laws are different because law means something different here. And this seat belt behaviour at least partially reflects that. (*Yes, I’m making most of this up.)
Rule of law, rule by law & human nature
For North Americans, laws are for us, for the individual. It’s rule of law — at least in our heads. Our laws (in theory, ideally) exist to create equality, protect the common people from the powerful and maximize individual self-determination. Of course the reality differs greatly from the ideal, but the ideal exists and it’s on that basis that we (imagine that we) fight for, abide by or disobey laws, when we aren’t just being rebellious and sticking it to authority out of principle. Disobeying a good law or respecting a bad one runs counter to some of our deepest cultural ideals.
But in China, it’s rule by law. Laws are tools arbitrarily used by the rulers to control the masses; the average individual’s enhancement is not really part of the theoretical equation. For thousands of years. Our Western ideals are not part of China’s cultural DNA, even subconsciously. Instead there’s a pragmatic, power-calculating default posture: “What will happen if I don’t obey?” Compliance is just about avoiding fines from a newly-enforced law that wasn’t created with your well-being in mind. So a seat belt law, stiffly enforced to generate better traffic stats? Sure they’ll do what’s necessary to avoid the fines without stopping to imagine the personal benefit of the law itself, even if gaining that benefit only requires a split-second more effort. When laws aren’t for you, the idea that a new regulation might include a personal benefit doesn’t automatically spring to mind.
But let’s be clear: the cultural contrast I’m drawing here is in degree of tendency. When it comes to cross-cultural experience and behaviour differences, our differences are significant, but so is our common humanity.** People are people: take away the penalties and see how much North Americans respect the concept of rule of law, how much our behaviour is guided by principles! But Westerners’ are still significantly influenced by our cultural ideals and experience involving rule of law, ideals and experience that Mainland Chinese in general do not have. Significantly different historical-cultural influences lean on our human nature, resulting in different default behaviour.
At least that’s my theory. I know I’m stretching it. :) But I’m going to start asking drivers directly anyway, just for fun.
Our own Chinese traffic adventures, like taking video while pedaling one-handed through rush hour traffic in Tianjin, can be found here:
- Traffic right-of-way: China vs. Canada
- Tianjin street market dash (video)
- Metaphors for Tianjin Traffic
- Today’s commute by the numbers
- How to: Confuse the traffic in your hometown
- How to: Ride a Bike in China (Part 2)
- Crossing the street (video)
- The Rules: arguing after a traffic accident
**P.S. – IMO, our differences are more profound than people typically realize. But so is what we have in common. IOW, we’re both more different and more similar than people usually imagine. (Internet acronyms FTW!)