Suffering through air travel in China

Life in Beijing, 80 per cent of the time, is a wonderful, unfettered experience of what it's like to always choose private gain over collective benefit.

Those makeshift, trishaw-esque vehicles that go against the traffic, squeeze through bollards and swerve around pedestrians? Absolute nightmare for the traffic system and probably top cause of injury for cyclists. For someone who wants to get somewhere quickly in Beijing's gridlocked traffic? Godsent.

The rows and rows of professionally packaged, high-quality DVDs for 10 yuan ($2) each of almost every kind of movie and TV series produced in the Western world? Billions of dollars of piracy and utter disrespect for artistic creation.

But well, no one needs me to explain why access to this is a top-five benefit of being an expat in China and almost - ALMOST - cancels out the bad air.

With its lack of rules and tolerance (encouragement) of a "do whatever you want until someone tells you to stop" lifestyle, life in China sometimes makes me feel a bit like a heroin addict: This is going to kill me ultimately but it feels so good right now.

These are the agreed-upon terms of engagement for an expat in Beijing. Which is why the circle of suffering known as air travel in China that intrudes into my life from time to time is such a rude shock. Things like "national security" and "safety" overwhelmingly take priority over individual travel plans and personal comfort.

In China, they won't just delay your flight. They'll delay it for 15 hours - for no reason or a reason they're unwilling to communicate - and then put you in an overnight 480 sq ft hotel room with a stranger on the same flight. That happened to a colleague recently.

Then there are the hours and hours of waiting on the tarmac, everyone strapped in, a sort of habit of Chinese planes that I've never experienced anywhere else.

Air travel in China is excruciating because the military controls 80 per cent of airspace. So, unlike the rest of the world where there are multiple routes to get from place to place, planes can take only one or two paths connecting major cities.

And air traffic controllers are told that safety is so paramount that they keep the distance between planes landing at twice the norm of that in Western countries.

Which, you know, is great if you think about the bigger picture of lives saved etc - but really annoying when you're just trying to get someplace.

All those hours waiting on the tarmac? Airlines want their statistics to show punctuality so their pilots pull away at the appointed hour without take-off clearance.

And then we all just wait, wondering how long people can spend bursting their pimples and counting all the blessings that will resume in our lives once this flight is over.

In July, delays and cancellations in Shanghai and other eastern Chinese airports got so bad that rumours proliferated that a high-ranking official was trying to escape the country and a massive airhunt was underway.

The authorities would say only that "other users" needed the airspace - and then casually arrested 40-plus people for spreading those rumours online.

I remember coming across an article during that time in the Shanghai Daily, headlined: "Authorities won't say why flights cancelled." This actual news article said, and I paraphrase: "Authorities won't say why this happened and won't say whether it will continue to happen."

Every foreign correspondent in China has wanted to write a version of this article at some point in time on a variety of topics. Honestly, we don't know why this happened and we don't know what's going to happen next.

On the bright side, there's no other time that I feel as much closeness and goodwill with Chinese people as when we're all in the same unmoving line, the same stale airport departure area, the same stationary plane.

Out in the mainland, we're always cutting each other's path off, stealing each other's intellectual property, profiting at each other's cost.

In here, we're fellow travellers through a cruel, indifferent world, stuck in the same airless vessel going nowhere. No one out there knows what we're going through and the comradeship and mutual regard noticeably grows. My fellow travellers even make the effort to spit only into their motion sickness bags.

After all, we're all in it together - pointlessly checking the time, grudgingly breathing our body odour, counting our blessings until it's all over.

rchang@sph.com.sg