Pedicab Pursuit

On the lamb, chased by wolves – by Hudson Lockett


A friend and I hopped into the back of an electric pedicab (sanlunche or “three wheel vehicle”) and were being whisked north past Beijing Worker's Stadium along a nigh-deserted road when what looked like a police car swerved across the centre line, cutting off our middle-aged driver. She eased up on the throttle, but stopped short of the brakes when two toughs piled out of the car and began running toward us.

We had just been listening in on a recording of the Sinica podcast, the latest episode of which had focused on corruption allegations swirling around the mainland's state run petroleum industry. It wasn't clear whether the ever imminent ouster of so-called “oil clique” overlord Zhou Yongkang – former CCP politburo standing committee member and supposed ally of the fallen Bo Xilai – was pure intra-Party politics, or simply the first great cat to be targeted by Xi Jinping's much-vaunted campaign to take down both "tigers and flies" in his fight against corruption of all sizes.

Swerving hard into a U-turn, our driver began pedalling full-blast to add all the torque she could muster to our cab's wheezy motor. I glanced over my shoulder. One of the toughs was hot on our heels and – my eyes grew wide – doggedly trying to stick what looked like a billy club into the spokes of our back-right wheel. The pounding of feet against asphalt and the whir of pedicab gears grew to crescendo as he made a burst of desperate speed and gave a final thrust, only to have his club glance off the spinning spokes and clatter to the ground. We urged our driver on and I glanced back to see the blue and red rooftop lights of their car go suddenly dark in the distance.

“They must not've been real cops,” my friend said after we took a hard right and lost sight of our would-be pursuers. I reflected on what I'd just seen, and knew he was right. Pedicabs like the one we were in occupy a legal grey area. While some red-canopied trikes are licensed to provide hutong tours in central Beijing, many operate under the tenuous pretense of providing guided tours of the city at large. The more utilitarian kind made of glass and metal pay lip service to the law with window placards that usually read "vehicle for individual use" (ziyongche). Both are a hallmark of the capital, likely more illegal than not, and they fill a huge gap left by the dearth of officially licensed taxis. But during my two years in Beijing I had never seen a single cop – or even a member of the much-reviled urban enforcers (chengguan) – actually try to haul one in.

Our driver pedalled like mad for another block, while we kept watch, until we were all certain the toughs had given up. We got off at the next intersection – further from our destination than where we'd started, but we agreed wholeheartedly with our driver that she had best look elsewhere for fares. My friend was sure he'd seen proper police livery on the car, but I hadn't caught a good glimpse. Either way, that trick was simple enough for an faux-cop to turn. I knew of at least one local shop that sold red and blue police lights, among other enforcement accoutrements.

Between that and the thugs' unwillingness to give further chase – the entire incident had taken less than a minute – we decided they were probably plain vanilla thugs, maybe low on cash and looking to shake down this or that illegal pedicab driver. Or maybe they were cops, or urban enforcers. Or maybe it was some other thing entirely.

Everywhere, it seems lately, you hear of tigers and flies. But just as instructive are the cats and the gnats.

Hudson Lockett is a freelance writer, editor and researcher in Beijing. Since arriving in China, he has contributed to Danwei and GISWatch. He is also co-host of the new China Hang-up podcast