A highway confrontation in China last month involved drivers of a Hummer and 20 Mazdas. It started when the Hummer barged into the Mazda convoy. It ended in an arrest, fines and media firestorm. The story offers a glimpse into China's emerging car culture and Internet politics.
The incident took place on Aug. 18, on a highway near Nanjing in eastern China. Some 50 members of a Mazda drivers' club were out for a weekend trip to the seaside. They communicated with CB radios and walkie-talkies.
"Hanma!" — or "Hummer" — exclaimed one of the Mazda crew who was videotaping from the back of the pack, as the black SUV shot up from behind in the emergency lane with its siren wailing. The Mazda club's leader is a 27-year-old engineer nicknamed A-Xiang.
The incident has gotten him into plenty of trouble, and he asked that his full name not be used.
"The Hummer's driver probably thought it was fun to barge into this pack of cars. Our convoy thought that this wasn't too polite," A-Xiang said in Chinese. "So we decided to box him in, for the fun of it. Once the Hummer made his way forward, we surrounded him and slowed to a crawl, probably about 18 mph."
With the Hummer honking furiously and traffic backed up behind them, the Mazdas finally moved aside to let cars pass. The whole incident lasted about 4 minutes.
These car buffs were all under 30 years old. Many had their Mazda 6s tricked out with souped-up engines, spoilers, and even police sirens. Modifying cars is technically illegal in China, but the laws are not strictly enforced.
Later, just for fun, the Mazda drivers posted their video of the incident on their Web site.
Speaking in his car accessories shop in Nanjing, A-Xiang says that what followed was a witch hunt.
"Actually, it wasn't a big deal to begin with, but the pressure of public opinion got very intense," he said. "At the height of it, we were getting five or six hundred prank calls and text messages a day, most which cursed at us."
The driver of the lead car was given a week in jail, and four other drivers received fines. One of the four is nicknamed A-Nian. He said the whole thing was a sobering experience.
"Next time we have an activity, I'll put the group's interest first," A-Nian said. I won't jeopardize other people's safety while driving. And the other thing is, whatever I do, I'll keep a lower profile."
In China these days, growing income inequality is generating a lot of social tension. So when the Chinese media got to parsing the Mazda vs. Hummer incident, a lot of the talk was about class hatred and car envy.
Another favorite point made by commentators was that if the Hummer driver hadn't been so patient, he could've eaten the Mazdas for lunch.
Chinese people call Hummers "Hanma," or fierce horse. They're known as the vehicle of choice of newly minted robber barons — especially coal mine bosses, who are not widely known for their discreet spending habits or environmental consciousness.
But Mazda club leader A-Xiang insists that he and his gang have nothing against Hummers per se. Some of them even drive the SUVs themselves.