Chinese take to roads amid a cultural shift

Middle class snaps up cars, clogs highways

Chen Chao, founder of the K-One Car Club, runs an auto tuning shop in Beijing and organizes unofficial road races. Chen Chao, founder of the K-One Car Club, runs an auto tuning shop in Beijing and organizes unofficial road races. (Maureen Fan/Washington Post)
Email|Print| Text size + By Maureen Fan
Washington Post / January 31, 2008

BEIJING - Three years ago, Chen Chao was a clean-cut insurance broker who wore suits and cuff links to work. Today, the 27-year-old founder of K-One Car Club is most often found in his auto tuning shop, sporting a leather jacket and long dark hair with light streaks.

In good weather, he organizes unofficial road races that attract hundreds of spectators in Beijing's distant suburbs.

As China's middle class expands, Chen and his customers are among the hundreds of thousands of new car owners hitting the roads each year, driving up imports of luxury cars, snarling traffic, creating a car culture, and reveling in what many Chinese describe as a newfound sense of freedom. In China today, owning a car is what owning a television set was in 1950s America.

"I've been to Sichuan, Shandong, and Jilin provinces, and I plan to spend Chinese New Year driving to Yunnan," said Zhu Chao, a website engineer and K-One club member who often takes long drives during his holidays. "I really like what the car brings to my life - convenience, freedom, flexibility, a quick rhythm. I can't imagine life without it."

In Chen's case, he has loved cars since childhood and learned how to drive at a military academy in Hebei Province, where instructors taught him how to operate trucks at night, navigate by the moon, and recognize traffic obstacles in the dark.

"Before I opened my tuning shop, I was already a huge car fan. After I bought my first car, I spent all my time driving into the suburbs with my friends on the weekends. It's really a lifestyle," Chen said. "Racing is dangerous, difficult, and risky. But risk is in my blood, so I love car racing."

Most people in this country of 1.3 billion do not own a car. For example, in Beijing, a city of 16 million people, there are just slightly more than 3 million cars.

But car ownership in China has grown by 300 percent in just six years. The capital's roads and intersections were not designed to cope with such an influx. The air is thick with pollutants, many from the emissions of the more than 1,000 cars being added to the streets each day.

Accidents and "student driver" signs abound. When fender benders occur, the Chinese tend to stop in place in the roadway, in the belief that the police will not be able to sort out who is to blame if they pull over to the shoulder.

Driving schools are so popular that appointments in Beijing must be made at least a week in advance. Online bulletin boards carry jokes about new drivers, including the one about the farmer who saw a sign for a Volkswagen Santana 2000 and offered a dealer 2,000 yuan (about $278). When the farmer refused to accept that that was too low, the dealer sent him across the road to a shop with a Mercedes 600 in the window.

But road savvy is increasing. In the first half of last year, accidents declined 17 percent over the same period of the previous year, public security officials told state media.

As the cost of owning a car comes down, young urbanites have started buying them mostly for fun, as opposed to four or five years ago, when many bought for reasons of "face" - to show off to neighbors and friends. Chen said most of his customers are between 18 and 28 years old, though some are in their mid-30s and own two or three cars each.

Ten years ago, there were only a handful of models for sale in China, and few individuals could afford them. Most buyers were companies or officials.

But last year's bestsellers were the Volkswagen Santana and Jetta, followed by the Buick Excelle, the Toyota Camry and two Chinese brands, Xiali and QQ, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

Yan Yizhou, a 32-year-old sales manager, got his driver's license six years ago and traded up last year to a jeep. Sport utility vehicles are hugely popular, and many Chinese are now spending their vacations on road trips that involve nothing more than countless days of endless driving.

"When your salary reaches a certain standard, you can buy a car and taste the fun of it," said Yan, who belongs to another of Beijing's hundreds of car clubs.

For decades, many Chinese could not afford cars and were encouraged to travel in groups.

In the West, a commuter culture isolates suburban residents and draws people away from public transportation. But in populous China, Yan insisted, cars would connect strangers.

"People who live far away from you who are not supposed to appear in your life will be brought into your life," he said.

China was on track to import an estimated 300,000 cars in 2007, a 30 percent increase from the year before, according to the China Trading Center for Automobile Import and the New China News Agency. Last year, 4.7 million cars were sold in China, up 23.4 percent from 2006.

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