International

China's Mega Traffic Jam Tied To Illegal Coal Trade: Report

china highway jam

A truck driver washes himself after waiting more than two days in the massive traffic jam on the Beijing-Tibet Highway. Anonymous/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Anonymous/AP

China's mind-boggling, 62-mile, 11-day traffic jam is just one more reason not to envy China its robust economic growth which comes with some fairly high social costs.

Many news reports about the backup in and beyond Beijing have reported that it's caused by road maintenance and delivery trucks.

But the Christian Science Monitor puts a finer point on it. Apparently a lot of the trucks backing up Highway 110 are carrying coal from illegal mines.

As CSM writer Peter Ford explains:

The police blame the monstrous jam on highway roadwork, compounded by minor accidents and a few breakdowns.

In fact, the mega blockage – the second in two months on a stretch of road about 130 miles northwest of the capital – is a tale of deceit and criminality that speaks volumes about China’s breakneck economic development. And behind the traffic chaos stands King Coal.

China relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy needs. For years, small illegal coal mines in the province of Shanxi provided Beijing and its surroundings with a good deal of coal but so many of the mines would collapse or explode, and so many miners would die, (over 1,600 nationwide last year according to official figures) that the local authorities have closed most of them down.

That’s all very well, but China being China, the province of Inner Mongolia, to the North of Shanxi, has taken up the slack. And an awful lot of the trucks currently snarled on the G110 expressway to Beijing are carrying coal mined illegally in Inner Mongolia.

They are taking the G110, drivers explained to the daily Beijing News, because there are no coal checkpoints on that highway, so they don’t have to bribe any inspectors to turn a blind eye to their illegal loads.

Assuming that's accurate, it's a really fascinating explanation. And it would make sense that Chinese governmental officials might be sensitive to talk too much about this.

In any event, we're talking about a fairly massive carbon footprint between all those trucks and cars moving sometimes a third of a mile a day in this traffic jam and the coal that will be eventually be burned.

Meanwhile, some observers are saying that this mother of all traffic jams is a harbinger of things to come in a China where car ownership is viewed, as it is elsewhere, as an important symbol of economic progress.

The Wall Street Journal's Shai Oster writes:

A recent study by IBM suggested some of the worst commutes are in Moscow, where drivers reported 2½-hour delays, on average, when asked about the worst traffic jam they faced in three years.

Still, Beijing beat out Mexico City, Johannesburg, Moscow and New Delhi to take top spot in the International Business Machines Corp. survey, which is based on a measure of the economic and emotional toll of commuting.

The mega-jam on the city outskirts comes as officials warn that downtown traffic in Beijing is steadily worsening.

State media on Tuesday reported that average driving speeds in the capital could drop below nine miles an hour if residents keep buying at current rates of 2,000 new cars a day.

At that pace, Beijing will have seven million vehicles by 2015, according to the head of the Beijing Transportation Research Center, and transportation will slow to what it was decades ago when China was known as the Bicycle Kingdom.

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