Back to the Future: Second Class
It was the smallest of prangs, but the minor traffic accident between a top-of-the-range BMW and a rickety farmer's tractor has prompted the Chinese authorities into drastic action to prevent a head-on collision between the top and bottom classes of its increasingly divided society.Can you imagine? Oh.
'The BMW incident,' as it is now widely known, forced the authorities to hold a retrial and made the propaganda ministry slam the brakes on internet chat-rooms filled with public resentment.
This thoroughly modern Chinese tale of social inequality, dubious justice and appalling driving began innocuously one day last October when Liu Zhongxia, a peasant woman, and her husband Dai Yiquan were rattling through Harbin, in Heliongjiang province, in a tractor piled high with onions.
A few years ago they would have enjoyed the freedom of almost empty roads, but China's booming economy is increasing the traffic at the rate of more than 20% a year. In one of the many changes of direction prompted by oncoming cars, Mr Liu scratched the wing-mirror of a new BMW X5, prompting an altercation which has still to die down six months later.
The details of the road rage incident have become the stuff of myth, but according to the local media, the driver of the BMW, Su Xiuwen, hit Mrs Liu with her purse and screamed: 'How can you afford to scratch my car?'
The furious woman - the wife of a business tycoon - then got back in her car, slammed her foot on the accelerator and ran over Mrs Liu, killing her and injuring a dozen other bystanders.
Public anger at this display of petulance was only increased by the trial on December 20, when Mrs Su was cleared of manslaughter and given a suspended sentence. In a hearing that lasted only two hours, the court accepted her claim that she had accidentally put her car into the wrong gear.
Not one witness turned up to testify, not even Mr Dai, who accepted an out-of-court settlement of 80,000 RMB (£6,000) - equivalent of eight years wages - for the death of his wife.
He told reporters he had had little choice. "I told police that she drove into the crowd on purpose," he said. "But no one dared stand up as a witness. I had to give up because I was helpless. I have no money, no power."
Fearful that the BMW affair might become a cause celebre, the authorities ordered newspapers to play down or stop their coverage. The national propaganda department also instructed major chat-rooms to tone down the contributions they were receiving.
To placate opinion, Heilongjiang province ordered a retrial. But it was reported this week that the outcome was the same. With newspaper and website editors now under orders to dampen the emotions aroused by the affair, the verdict has been given scant coverage. But experts said it was unlikely to be the last China heard of such disturbances.[Nitpicker emphasis]