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Around the world are have-cars, have-nots

Beijing -- The world is quickly being split into two hostile camps: those with cars, and those without. Nowhere is this division more apparent than in this city of 14 million people, where cars push bicycles onto the sidewalk and people up against the wall.

In China, the last big country nominally dedicated to the idea of social and economic equality, the onslaught of the auto has been particularly vexing.

If Chinese were to enjoy access to automobiles on par with Americans, it would deplete the world's known oil reserves while turning rice fields into parking lots.

China Daily recently opined, "In Beijing, some 4 million bikes now compete for road space with more than 2 million cars, and a quick glance at the newly widened boulevards, overpasses and ring roads of the capital clearly shows which means of transport has been getting priority."

Meanwhile, in the vast Chinese countryside, inequity and inequality increasingly find expression in riots, flash demonstrations and pitched battles. Such violent venting contributed to the staggering total of 70,000 "mass disturbances" reported to have taken place across China's vast hinterland last year.

In the small fraction of incidents that get reported, one can detect a pattern: Cars are increasingly being targeted by the poor and put upon.

In a village in Zhejiang province, residents destroyed more than 60 cars in April. In July in Chizhou, in Anhui province, a mob of 10,000 flipped, smashed and torched three police cars and a Toyota sedan after the sedan collided with a bicyclist.

Elsewhere across China, workers protesting low wages have blocked highways, disrupting traffic for hours.

The causes of the violence vary. Sometimes an anti-auto rampage is directly linked to the dangers of metal in motion -- the reckless swiping of a pedestrian or the killing of a student on his way to school.

Sometimes the protest is about unpaid wages or layoffs, or a profit-driven power station that poisons ancestral farmlands. Often the hapless automobile represents privilege and inequality.

But whenever the collective anger gets out of control, "smash, burn and overturn" seems to be the unofficial motto.

Beijing is not alone in trying to juggle the rapid growth of automobile lifestyle with traffic safety, environmental concerns, social inequality and respect for the pedestrian.

A melee in Belfast leaves 10 cars overturned and a double-decker bus trashed; road rage in the United States results in gunshots and collisions; and kids in Third World shantytowns who have yet to sit on the upholstery inside a car gleefully scrape the paint off shiny exteriors.

Photographer Philip Blenkinsop has graphically chronicled the downside of automotive life in "The Cars That Ate Bangkok," a stark black-and-white record of road kill and collateral damage in Thailand.

Nor is anger over auto issues unknown in the land that, more than any other, has championed the automobile. In the United States, tens of thousands die annually in traffic accidents, a toll that would be politically unacceptable in the war on terror.

The gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle is so menacing it gives the economy-car driving American a whiff of what it's like to be poor in China.

Cars demarcate class in the United States also, as the uneven evacuation of residents of New Orleans and surrounding areas before Hurricane Katrina so emphatically showed.

But it is in U.S. military-occupied Iraq where people hurting cars and cars hurting people reaches truly nightmarish proportions, where gas-guzzlers are both target and delivery device, to bomb or be bombed.

Even those who ride in SUVs or armored limos a safe distance from the battlefields of Iraq must kowtow to the realities of oil slavery.

Witness the obsequious smiles on the faces of Vice President Dick Cheney, former President George H.W. Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell when they recently paid their respects to the new Saudi king, guardian of the world's biggest oil fields.

Call it resentment, or call it the first cries of an as yet unarticulated "Car-munist" manifesto. The world is witnessing the growth of a ragtag movement, spontaneous and combustible, as those without cars fight iniquities, real and imagined, created by oil-burning, smoke-belching autos.

Philip J. Cunningham is writer and political commentator based in Beijing. He wrote this piece for Pacific News Service. Contact us at insight@sfchronicle.com.

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