By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 21, 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 the 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 Web site 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 still 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, 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 ($274). 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 official 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 Hyundai 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.
"More and more people will choose jeeps, which are suitable for driving in the countryside," said Yan, who belongs to another of Beijing's hundreds of car clubs. "When your salary reaches a certain standard, you can buy a car and taste the fun of it."
Traveling for fun by car is a cultural shift for many Chinese. For decades, they were not able to 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. Car clubs are a good place to meet new friends," he said. "And on your way somewhere, you will probably meet some broken-down cars and you will stop to help them."
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.
Some of those buyers are fanatical.
"I can feel it when they come into the shop. The whole family chooses the car together. I can read the eagerness in their faces," said Xing Chuang, who has owned the Huizhongtong Automobile Trade Co. for a dozen years. "They pay attention to every detail of the car. After they take it home, they get up several times every night to see if their cars are okay."
At the Beijing Flying Golden Horse Automobile Trade Co., customers prefer big cars -- without considering security, where they will park it or "how it will drive in a traffic jam," sales manager Xu Zhiwei said.
"We sell Audis, which are the favorite of Chinese officials and businessmen. Customers who buy Audis always think of face when they buy, and some even have to borrow money to buy one. But other customers are much more rational and calm."
Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.