The rising middle classes want their wheels

Carole Cadwalladr goes to the Beijing car show to find out why having a car makes all the difference in rapidly developing China

by Carole Cadwalladr

BEIJING — W hat becomes immediately apparent on entering the 10th annual Beijing car show is the emotional intensity with which China has thrown itself into its greatest consumerist passion to date: the first throes of an affair with the car. The entire nation, it turns out, is in love with them, is in thrall to them, is possibly thinking about buying one.

Or so it seems, as I attempt to make my way to the Ferrari stand, where I’ve been promised a delivery ceremony is about to be performed, my nose squashed into some man’s armpit, my ribs flattened by the weight of what feels like a billion people pressing in on every side. I’d always known that there were a lot of people in China — I just wasn’t expecting to meet them all on my first day.

Not quite everybody, I discover afterward merely 600,000 of them. All of them looking at cars, being photographed next to cars, picking up brochures of cars, getting into the driving seats of cars and shifting the gears and stroking the upholstery and opening and closing the boot.

There are 890 different cars on display at the show, made by more than 225 different manufacturers, some of which I’ve heard of — Ford, Mercedes Benz, Toyota — and some of which I haven’t (Great Wall, anyone? Build Your Dreams? Brilliance?) or, allow me to correct myself, hadn’t heard of until then. But there’s also something in the air, the sort of excitement that car manufacturers spend millions of pounds attempting to recreate in order to titillate our jaded Western souls, and that exists here for real. Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t even own a car. The country is now the second biggest car market in the world, and for millions of Chinese window-shopping for their family’s first set of wheels, this is their consumer revolution.

My companion, Martin Parr, a photographer, looks like a child in a sweetshop. His latest big project is documenting luxury, and specifically the developing world’s response to it. “Isn’t it fantastic?” he says.

It is. It’s just so big. There are hundreds of stands, thousands of people. At the Chery stand, I stop and catch my breath and talk to a rare breed, an English-speaking salesman called Andy Wang. Chery, it turns out, is one of the biggest and most successful car manufacturers in China and its aim now, according to Andy (most English-speaking Chinese take an English name), is to “push it out all over the world. We must make our guests to believe in our make.” Wang is so enthusiastic that he gives me a full tour in which he points out all the special features and then shows me on a map all the places Chery exports to. It reads like a CIA hit list: Libya, Belarus, Algeria, Uzbekistan and lots of other places that aren’t the United States or Western Europe, with their tough crash tests and emissions standards.

I ask him if he has a car. “Yes, of course, I can drive a car! After graduation, I drove in my company. We learn in one week. I find it very easy for me to drive a car.” But do you own a car? “Ah. I wish! But it’s a lot of money, but one day, yes!” Wang, it turns out, is the sort of average Chinese consumer who makes Western CEOs drool. His parents worked in a factory until they set up their own business. Nobody in his family has ever owned a car, but it’s what he aspires to and one day soon may be able to afford. According to the chief executive of GM, a salary of £1,500, or the average annual income of households in China’s mid-level cities, is the threshold at which people start to think about buying a car.

Estimates vary, but it is believed that around 30 in every 1,000 people in China own a vehicle, which, as the New Yorker has pointed out, is roughly what it was in the U.S. in 1915. The potential for growth is the stuff of an automobile executive’s dreams. And an environmentalist’s worst nightmare. Northeast China already has the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution anywhere in the world.

Chery, it turns out, is China’s Ford; the Chery QQ, its Model T. It’s a tiny slip of a car, a “micro sub-compact” in the jargon, which was launched in 2003 and costs just £2,000: officially China’s cheapest car. More than that, it was the car that China had been waiting for. The newly burgeoning middle classes embraced it and Chery’s sales leaped by 80 percent.

Looks-wise, you might just recognize it, as it’s a pretty much identical copy of a Daewoo Matiz as owned by a very unhappy General Motors. The company was furious, having bought the Korean company with the intention of relaunching the Matiz as the Chrysler Spark, but were beaten to the punch by the QQ, and although they filed legal papers they didn’t get very far on account of the fact that Chery is owned by the government.

It also seems to have set something of a precedent. I’m not much of a car expert, but even I can spot a Mini, although it turns out to be not a Mini at all but a Lifan 320; a Smart Car which isn’t, it’s a Shuanghuan Noble; and a rather fantastic copy of a Hummer made by the Dongfeng Corporation which looks the part but I’m not sure you’d necessarily want to test it under enemy fire in the Iraqi desert.

And there, in the luxury hall, is a familiar-looking badge belonging to a company called Roewe. I’m not sure I’d have recognized it but Martin Parr comes bounding up to find me. “Look! It’s a Rover!” It is, or at least it’s the bastard Chinese son of Rover risen from the ashes of the British plant. When MG Rover went bust three years ago, a Chinese company, the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, had already bought the intellectual property rights to the Rover 75, 25 and all the engines, and Nanjing Automobile Corporation bought the MG name, IPR and the factories.

On a huge TV screen, I watch a film exemplifying Roewe’s brand values. A Chinese version of Hugh Grant is shown in a number of typical English scenes: smoking a cigar while playing chess, fencing, dancing with a pretty lady in a tiara, and lounging around in cricket whites. And then Liu Tao, Roewe’s brand director, leads me to the back of the stand, where there is a “Roewe Taste Tea House” and young men dressed like James Bond serve English tea in bone China teacups, just like they do in England.

Roewe is how the Chinese pronounce Rover, Tao says (the company wanted the Rover name, someone else tells me, but ballsed up at the last minute), and the Roewe 750 is essentially the Rover 75. “Only we make some changes; China’s roads and habits are different. And from a styling point of view . . . we’ve changed the rear end, because people here like a bigger boot. And we have more modern interior trends. The Rover 75 was a bit . . . old-fashioned? We call it classic.” So there you have it. A Roewe 750 costs £12,000, has a very smart suede interior and at some point in the near future will probably be available once again in Britain. Woeful British newspaper editorials on the subject are probably already written, but as luck would have it, I ended up riding in a chauffeur-driven Roewe 750, owned by Handel Lee, an American-born-and-educated Chinese lawyer and one of the most dynamic cultural entrepreneurs in the country, and what can I say? It seemed pretty nice. Lee tells me he bought it “for fun . . . I couldn’t resist it. A Chinese-made Rover. It’s so sad in Britain — it was such a great brand. And we rescued it.” A few stands down, I chat to Graham Biggs of Rolls-Royce U.K., who tells me how he’s been coming to the show for the past five years, in which time it’s changed beyond all recognition.

“The show stands, the money being spent . . . before it was only low-priced budget cars whereas now there are all these people carriers and sports cars. They’re so ambitious and so good. Make no mistake, the Chinese are coming and they are very, very smart. The motor world as we know it is changing.” Although, equally, he could have left “motor” out of the sentence. Because cars — and the Chinese appetite both for buying them and for making them — is simply a metaphor for the new power relations between East and West. Our environmental concerns — read rank hypocrisy — at the idea of the Chinese owning as many cars as we do, and our dismay that they can produce them better than we ever could — read consumerist glee at how cheap they’ll be — is part of a global shift we’re powerless to resist.

China makes nearly everything else that we buy and consume; of course they can make a Rover better than we can. And of course we are all going to be driving Chinese cars in about five minutes’ time. Who are we kidding? In the far, far south of the city, on a piece of ground the size of several football pitches, I find 500 white Volkswagen Santanas belonging to the Beijing Oriental Fashion Automobile Drive School. It’s a truly bizarre sight as every single one of them appears to be either turning into a parking space or reversing out of a parking space. Over and over again.

In each car are four students and watching are the instructors, one of whom, Zhang Jin, explains the score. First up is two whole weeks of driving theory. (Sample question: “Drivers should a) deliberately underestimate each other, b) compete for road supremacy or c: learn and help each other, adopt one’s strong point while overcoming one’s weak point and keep safely driving.” I’m assuming the answer is c) but, on the other hand, how would this even work?) Then comes basic driving, which involves 26 hours of sitting in a classroom. And then they move to the parking lot for six hours a day for five days to learn maneuvers. And then, finally, they go out on a road, for a grand total of six hours.

Which possibly goes some way toward explaining the statistics. China has just 2 percent of the world’s cars, yet 21 percent of its fatal traffic accidents. Every single day, 1,200 new cars take to the streets of Beijing, the vast majority of them driven by complete novices. In the West, the equivalent would involve an entire motorway system being used only by 17-year-old boys.

Three of the people in Zhang Jin’s group are in their 20s, but one, Lin Zengyi, is 51.

“Did you ever imagine when you were a child that you could one day own a car?” I ask him and the class practically falls over laughing.

“When I was young, I couldn’t afford a bicycle! I couldn’t even afford to buy enough to eat. I earned 16 RMB a month. A car? What? Are you mad?”

I t is nothing short of amazing to witness the journey that China has made in less than half a lifetime. And it’s even more amazing when you come across it in a single person. There’s an ad in one of Beijing’s English-language magazines placed by a Chinese lady driver who offers trips around town and I arrange to go for a spin in her car, although it’s not so much a spin, more a saunter. Her name is Cathy and we tour the hutongs, or alleys, of Beijing’s Sanlitun bar district and the speedometer barely troubles the 20 km/h mark. When we meet an obstruction and have to reverse down a narrow road, it takes so very, very long that it feels like time itself has actually stopped.

Handel Lee, of the chauffeur-driven Roewe, had told me about such driverly habits. “Have you noticed?” he says. “People drive very slowly. They have a better sense of things around them. They’re surrounded by 1.4 billion people so they’re used to being cramped, they are always smack up against each other. You don’t get this aggression you get in the West. Coming from the States, I can just zip my way through.” And as in driving, as in life. Handel came here in 1991 for a couple of years and ended up staying, opening the country’s first contemporary art gallery, becoming the chairman of China’s largest law firms and opening Shanghai’s first truly Western emporium, Three on the Bund, an art-restaurant-retail palace. All by just zipping his way through.

But back to Cathy. We’re in her brother’s Nissan and she tells me her story. How she grew up in Shandong province where her parents were farmers, and moved to Beijing after her brother did. I don’t really get to the bottom of how her parents managed to have two children, but more than that, I find it hard to believe that Cathy, the model of urban sophistication, her hair fashionably cut, driving herself — slowly — around the streets of Beijing was, until recently, one of the great forgotten rural masses.

She lists for me everything she didn’t have growing up. “No TV, no radio, no washing machine, no fridge, no water from the tap. There wasn’t even a road, just a dirt track. If you wanted to go shopping, you cycled 18 km to the shop and 18 km back.” Her mother, who moved with her, can’t read. And until they both arrived in Beijing eight years previously, “I’d never had ice cream or been in a elevator. Never eaten Western food.” She is the new Chinese revolution personified. From rural to urban, from the peasantry to the middle class, from a bicycle to a car. She’s amazing, really, but then everything in China is at least mildly amazing, if not totally amazing. From the new Norman Foster airport to the 40,000 km of expressways built in the past decade — as smooth as silk and trimmed with privet hedges and begonias — to the exhibition center in which the car show is being held, which, apparently, was built in roughly two-and-a-half seconds.

“I was there two weeks ago,” Julian Hardy, the MD of Aston Martin China, tells me, “and it was total chaos. It still looked half-built. They were out there tarmacing the last bit of the car park the night before the show opened.” That’s the way it works in China. Until the 1990s, you couldn’t book a train ticket or a hotel without special dispensation. The myth of the open road isn’t a myth here; owning a car is a direct expression of the new freedoms that the country enjoys.

K enneth Zhao, a sales executive for Great Wall Motors, shows me a rather fantastic-looking camper van but admits: “Frankly speaking, we don’t have much of a market for it. This is an overseas idea. The percentage of people who enjoy the life is much less.” The road tolls are too high (they’re roughly the same as Germany’s), the infrastructure too poor. If people drive long distances, it tends to be en masse with their car club. There are hundreds of these in Beijing, and on a rainy Sunday I join Zhao Xiangjie, president of the Target Auto Club, on a jaunt out of town to see how this works. Basically, we form a convoy of SUVs, decorated with flags, tailgating each other down the middle lane of the highway and communicating via a combination of CB radio and mobile phone or, as in Zhao’s case, both simultaneously.

We head a few miles out of town to a hot spring resort, and what with the incessant crackle of the CB radio and the people overtaking on both sides, the bicycles that appear in your path out of nowhere, the way that cars will brake suddenly, on a whim, with no seeming idea of the concept of being rear-ended, and the terrifying appearance of a worker in an orange jacket stepping into the fast lane to sweep the carriageway by hand, it’s probably enough for me. Zhao, though, regularly organizes trips to places like Lhasa (he’s been 15 times and it takes 18 days), Stockholm (35 days) and Cairo (50 days).

Doesn’t anybody have a job? I ask.

“Most people own their own companies so they manage their time. They are middle-class or upper-class and they enjoy driving. It’s also a social circle. On the package tours, there are different classes; they find they don’t like the fact that it’s so mixed. Here, they are with other people who are the same.” And that is the crux of it. At the secondhand car market in Beijing, I meet Nin Yujun, 32, out car shopping with his wife Zhang Zhimin, 33, and their child Nin Kun. They need a car for their business, he says. Because it’s convenient. And because all their neighbors have one. And? He hesitates. “There is psychological pressure to own a car,” he admits.

To own a car in China is already to be rich beyond the dream of most people. But as any good Western consumer knows, this is not enough. What kind of car you own speaks volumes in any country, let alone in one whose business dealings revolve around the concept of “face” — keeping it, losing it.

And it’s here that the likes of General Motors and Porsche hope to make a killing. In 2006, GM had its worst ever year in the U.S.; in China, on the other hand, sales were up 80 percent. China is the largest market for BMW in the world, even though the cars are nearly twice as expensive as in Europe thanks to 83.2 percent tax. Bill Cheng, the managing director of Bentley China, tells me that growth last year was 94 percent and almost looks disappointed. “The year before it was 100 percent,” he says.

Growth is phenomenal, but it may become more phenomenal still. A million more cars are likely to be added to the roads this year, but to catch up with ownership levels in the U.S. would involve the addition of 750 million cars. Environmental Armageddon, although maybe it’s here that the cleaner, greener car will finally be cracked. Already, though, the car is changing everything else — from the supermarkets where people now shop to the dormitory towns where they now live.

When Cathy returned to her village in Shandong province last year, it was the first time that the villagers had ever seen a woman drive a car. “Nothing has changed there, nothing. Me? I am totally different. I was so fat when I came to the city! And dark from working in the fields.” She’s remarkable in so many ways, Cathy. The future of China made flesh. And lovely and friendly and hospitable with it. The next time I come to Beijing, she says, we should take a road trip back to her village. At the end of the evening I watch her gingerly maneuver her way out into the stream of Beijing traffic. And she’s doing c) I think: learning to help each other and adopt one’s strong points while overcoming one’s weak points and keep safely driving.