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Barely five feet tall, emphatically two-tone in her black leather pants and hot pink T-shirt, Ms. Ma bellowed at the teeming confusion of sack-carrying travelers at the outdoor bus station: ''You-SHEE! Who wants you-SHEE? As a barker, ticket-taker and resident battle ax on a private minibus that traverses a road south from this provincial capital, Ms. Ma -- who was calling out the name of a destination, Yuxi, not mangling second-person English -- looks like an undersized engine of the local economy.
What fueled her aggressive posture on this day was a simple deal: fill the bus with passengers or make no money. In most of China, private minibuses are now the principal means of getting from one town to another. Private cars are still rare, bicycles are still numerous, but for anyone with more than a few miles to travel, the minibus has become the convenient way to go, making it a regular feature of life for hundreds of millions of Chinese.
And what a telling microcosm of China today, this minibus: Too many people. Rickety infrastructure. Complaints galore. Grudging acceptance of authority. And a durable propensity to get where it is going. As Ms. Ma's wobbly vehicle rolled out of the station, a sleepy-looking guard in a faded blue uniform and red armband waved it toward the road, a feint at traffic control that the driver did not even seem to see.
Theoretically, the authorities in China keep order; in practice, where politics are not involved, they mostly stand by and wave along whatever is already moving. The driver, Lao Ai, replied: ''What rules? I'm the boss here. The official limit on passengers was printed on the side of the minibus: ''19 reserved seats. With all the luggage, it felt like many more.
A man in military uniform placed four large cardboard cartons square in the middle of the aisle, forcing other passengers to climb around them, like slithering sardines.