Monday, February 27, 2012

Risky Business

 In Xiamen (by a regulation railing)

The Chinese have a much higher tolerance for risk than Americans. I regularly see things that would only rarely occur in the US. People standing on the very top of a ladder. Sixteen-inch railings. No railings. People standing on the very top of a ladder next to no railing. Ten meter fault lines due to subsidence as a result of skyscraper construction that is outpacing engineers' understanding. Street food vendors—successful ones—with highly questionable food safety practices. Tile along a major public sidewalk that is decrepit and crumbling and inviting a dangerous fall. In the US, someone would sue so, as a result, someone would fix the tile; apparently no one sues the Chinese government.

Some of the worst risks involve transportation. No one wears a seatbelt. No one wears a helmet. The little electric bikes/scooters are a rich source of potential disasters. I’ve seen a family of four somehow perched on one. Most have a little platform to rest your feet on, which also doubles as place to carry stuff. My favorite cargo was a tank of propane, held in by the rider’s knees. The scooters never follow traffic rules, regularly running through reds, running against traffic, running through reds against traffic, running down sidewalks. I find it difficult to believe I’ve seen no fatalities yet.

This attitude toward risk also affects official decision making. The high-speed train that was built between Shanghai and Beijing crashed recently, only months after being constructed. As someone pointed out to me, engineers know how to make these trains run safely. They’ve done so in Japan for many years without incident. But, the Chinese wanted to run them extra fast, and they were willing to accept the risk.

Sometimes risk is borne out of necessity. In rural areas, there have been a number of accidents involving school buses, which are packed dangerously full with children (64 kids packed into a nine-person van). These risks are accepted by parents and school administrators because it’s the only way to make school transportation economically feasible. Make the buses safer and no one could afford to send their kids to school.

This attitude toward risk has obvious downsides. People get hurt. At the same time, risk also has rewards. Nothing wagered, nothing gained.

I think this willingness to take risks has something to do with the explosive levels of economic growth in China (9.7% increase in GDP on average each year 2000-2010). The Chinese are natural entrepreneurs. Once the Communist Party allowed these proclivities to flourish by opening the door to private enterprise, the Chinese made the most of it.

Combined with another obvious characteristic of the Chinese—their willingness to work really, really hard—I believe their risk acceptance has set the stage for an impressive level of economic development. I just hope none of us falls over a railing while we're here enjoying the fruits of the contemporary Chinese economy.


  1. Wow 64 people in a nine person van??!!!!

  2. Yep - 64 in a 9 person van. Here's a website with information on that crash along with pictures of other vans similarly packed:

  3. Just be glad the kids don't have to take the school busses in China. My God what a bad situation.
    Greg J