Foot off the brake

Updated: 2011-06-01 14:30

By Patrick Whiteley (China Daily)

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Among China's first drivers were newspaper photographers, who took advantage of the faster form of transport to follow fire trucks and zoom to action hot spots. Veteran China Daily photographer Wu Zhiyi and former China Daily employee Chen Xiong can remember Beijing in the 1980s when driving a car in the capital was a sheer delight. There were sunny blue skies, very few cars and no traffic jams.

During the mid-to-late 1980s, when Wu and Chen first took to the road, private car ownership was finally allowed. Today, the domestic motoring industry has grown to become the biggest in the world.

But driving is still a relatively new concept in China and the car-buying boom has really occurred only during the past decade.

In 2001, 2.3 million vehicles were produced in China and each year the volume increased between 1 and 1.5 million vehicles. But by 2008, when annual production reached 9.3 million, the nation went car crazy and by 2009 the number rose to 13.8 million. In 2010, more than 18 million automobiles were produced in China.

This year, tens of millions of new Chinese car owners are exploring their nation, on a fast-growing 75,000 km freeway network (half was built in the past five years), but most motorists have limited experience.

Wu, 55, and Chen, 55, are exceptions. In fact, Chen says that in 1987, when he bought a Fiat 126P, he became the ninth person in Beijing to privately own a new automobile. "That's what the police told me when they did the paper work," says Chen, adding it cost him 16,000 yuan at the time.

"Except for me, the first 10 people who had private cars in Beijing were celebrities and politicians, such as Mei Lanfang (Peking Opera star) and Rong Yiren (former vice-president of China)," he says.

Before Wu joined China Daily in 1990, he served in the People's Liberation Army as a photographer and in 1986 drove a Nissan sedan.

"I had a driver, but because I had driving skills, he was out of a job and I drove myself," he says. "Although it was a public car, it really became my own."

He says the streets of Beijing were very different two decades ago. In 1990, there were 5.4 million registered automobiles across China; today there are 70 million, with 4.7 million in the capital alone.

"Back then Beijing was a very good place to drive because you always arrived at your destination on time," he says. "That's impossible today."

Working for China Daily, he drove the newspaper's Renault sedan and Volkswagen Santana, a model which later became country's most popular. By 2010, more than 3 million Santanas had been sold in China.

"You would arrive at an assignment and people were jealous you had a car," he says. "Back then, if you had a car, people thought you were very rich."

Despite new rules which allowed private ownership, it was still difficult for the average citizen to buy a set of wheels, Wu says.

There were no car dealerships and vehicles had to be specially ordered. In 1993, Wu bought his first car, a Mazda, for the small fortune of $19,000, and was only able to do so through his wife's foreign-based company. "The only Chinese people who could buy a car needed overseas connections," he says.

Over the years he has bought nine different cars including a Skoda, Honda, Toyota, Beijing Jeep, and two models of Volkswagen, a Jetta and Santana.

Today he drives a Toyota SUV and has no plans to upgrade. "I don't believe that expensive is best, and the Toyota has been a great, reliable car to drive," he says.

Chen's second and third cars were Jettas. "I've never had a luxury car, these small cars were good enough for me and suited my needs," Chen says. "Cars should not be a sign of status or wealth. They are just transportation tools taking you from A to B.

"These so-called luxury cars are actually a waste of energy and we don't need that."

Chen's appreciation of his Volkswagen reflects widespread Chinese admiration for the German auto giant, which paved the way for many more foreign carmakers, which had to partner local companies.

General Motors followed VW to Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC); VW formed another joint venture with First Automotive Works (FAW), which also teamed with Mazda; Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai joined Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co (BAIC). Toyota, Honda and Fiat and recently Chrysler joined Guangzhou Auto Group Co (GAC); PSA Peugeot Citroen, Honda and Nissan joined Dongfeng while Ford partnered Chang'an Motors.

By the 1990s, Chinese car companies entered the fray, and in recent years have been rolling out budget cars from as low as 25,000 yuan ($3,800).

Geely, which boosted its credibility by buying Volvo last year, has become a leading light for domestic carmakers, thanks to the efforts of its charismatic CEO Li Shufu.

Born into a farmer's family in Zhejiang province, Li skipped university and in 1984, with 2,000 yuan from his father, started making refrigeration components.

He moved into motorcycles and later set up China's first private car company, which was allowed to produce motor vehicles. This year, Li is hoping to gain a year-on-year growth of about 18 percent.

"We are optimistic of the stable development of the Chinese car market in the long term because China is still much below the world average in terms of car ownership per thousand people," he says.

Chen and Wu have extensively explored their homeland, with Chen driving to Xinjiang almost 20 times and Wu discovering the coastal roads of Shandong province.

But Wu says today's congestion and traffic delays have dampened his enthusiasm. He drives only 10,000 km every year, and mostly uses his car to commute.

"I don't like driving anymore here in Beijing because all the congestion makes it very tiring," he says.




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