Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Chinese Car Culture

By Kevin

She owns a car, but she has no driver's license.

“It is a little bit strange, isn't it?” our colleague asked sheepishly.

What's even more unusual is that she's owned the car for six years and only now is she considering going through the long process of getting a driver's license. It's not an easy process, which is somewhat surprising given the hair-raising experiences we've had in taxis over the years here. Naturally, given the high emphasis the Chinese put on exams, she has to pass four written exams about driving regulations and a behind-the wheel test in order to get her license. But Chinese drivers don't need much actual behind-the-wheel practice to be licensed (Peter Hessler's excellent book “Country Driving” gives an interesting account of his experience of getting a Chinese license).

“Every week, I open the door of the car, put in the key and start the engine to keep it running,” she said, smiling.

I discovered that she had a car because she said that her parents were going to take the train up from Chengdu to visit during the holiday. Then, their plan is to drive back home together, likely stopping off in Hanzhong and another city. Her father is the only one in the family with a license.

I was particularly surprised because, although there are some inexpensive Chinese-made cars, the relative expense of buying a car is much higher than in the U.S. And most people seem to save up and pay cash for cars, rather than taking out loans. When you consider that the average teacher's salary is between $200-400 a month, it takes awhile to save up.

One of Ruth's students bragged that he earned his driver's license over the summer. But he rarely drives. After all, he doesn't have a car. That's the more common way of doing things – get the license to prepare for the future. But he's one of only two or three students I know of who has his license. Everyone else seems to be in awe of anyone with a license.

Another former student mentioned, when talking about buying an apartment with her fiance, that they would be sure to buy one with a garage. Did they have a car? Nope. Just planning for the future.

It's a sign of the times, though. Owning a car in China has become a definite status symbol. Recently, some same article quotes a candidate on a popular TV dating show, describing her ideal husband: have called it the “second most important status symbol” in China (after buying an apartment). The "I would rather weep in a BMW than smile on a bicycle.”

Car buying is such a status symbol in China that Beijing recently capped the number of cars it will license in a year. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2010-12/23/c_13661672.htm

When I first moved to China in 2005, there were two privately owned cars on the entire campus in Tonghua. Two. None of the apartment buildings housing teachers had room for parking because it wasn't necessary. When Ruth and I moved to Weinan, we were surprised that not only did each teacher apartment building have a dozen parking spaces, but that many of them were full. Now, every spot is taken. In fact, school officials have had to paint parking space lines on most campus side streets to accommodate the overflow. And both curbs of street outside the school gate are now constantly filled with cars (both from school and the new apartment buildings across the street, which recently opened).

There are an assortment of car manufacturers filling the parking lot. While many are Chinese brands you wouldn't recognize outside of China, like BYD (which plans to sell an electric car in America soon), Cherry, Dongfeng, Chang'an, Changhe, and Geely, others are American, Japanese or Korean (Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan, Suzuki, Mitsubishi) or European brands like Volkswagon, Audi, BMW, and Peugeot-Citroën. While the Chinese brands are relatively inexpensive, it's a bit surprising that so many teachers here are able to afford the foreign brands.

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