China's Automotive Era Kicks Into High Gear

A few months ago, I was driving near Shenzhen, in southern China, when the scope and the shape of the country's development struck me for the first time. I looked out the window at one point to notice what looked, almost impossibly, like a major intersection you might encounter in New Jersey or Florida. Or rather, what such an intersection might look like if it were to be built overnight.

There were workers quickly turning dirt into asphalt, a scaffold shrouding what would likely become a convenience store or another of many road-side restaurants, and the requisite gas station. Down the road, we passed an argument over a fender-bender; after that, a luxury golf course. The rest--the big office parks and parking lots--hadn't arrived yet, but they couldn't be far off. We were on our way to visit a crowded jewelry factory which, like many in the area, had recently raised its wages not out of any social obligation but to better draw workers from the countryside, who are being attracted by comparable jobs and better lifestyles closer to home.

Encircling, and driving right through it all, is the car. Fifty years after President Eisenhower created the U.S.'s first interstate highway system, China is embarking on its own road trip.In an eye-opening piece in this Sunday's New York Times, Ted Conover examines the explosion of roads in China and the country's newfound and seemingly unconditional love of driving ("Capitalist Roaders"). His account of an elaborate Chinese road trip offers a fascinating slice of middle class Chinese life; his statistics tell a story too. China's miles of highway total

at least 23,000, more than double what existed in 2001, and second now only to the United States. Number of passenger cars on the road: about 6 million in 2000 and about 20 million today. Car sales are up 54 percent in the first three months of 2006, compared with the same period a year ago [latest figures out today]; every day, 1,000 new cars (and 500 used ones) are sold in Beijing. ... [And in 2002, the last time for which data is available] China, with 2.6 percent of the world's vehicles, had 21 percent of its road fatalities.

To be sure, most of the country still bikes--currently, only seven people for every thousand own a car, and massive public-transport projects are on the way in the big cities. And, on top of the the government's regulatory push for fuel-efficient cars and its taxes on S.U.V.s, one of the country's biggest automakers has announced plans for a hybrid, as have Hyundai and Toyota. But with incomes rising at 14 per cent last year, and a state rush to push the economic successes and political attachments out from the coast to poorer "frontier" regions by way of large road projects, China is looking at a car- and oil-heavy future no matter what.

The obsession among the rising middle-class has an innocent and giddy feel to it, almost like America in the '50's: Car clubs, drive-ins, glossy automotive magazines, and even luxury plates proliferate, to say nothing of the cities' high levels of pollution or the prospects of increasing land and oil consumption (see Earth Policy's brief on China's potential consumption).

In a country unaccustomed to many political liberties, and eager to match the quality-of-life of its Western counterparts, the equation of the car with independence is a popular one--and one that is no longer frowned-upon by the government. "Driving is our right," one driver tells Conover. "Once China opened up and Chinese people could see the other side of the world and know how people lived there, you could no longer limit the right to buy cars." This description for a traveling car exhibit in China (complete with a photo of Arnold and his Hummer), says everything you need to know about China's car romance:

A traveling exhibit exposing Californians love for the automotive lifestyle and its effect on the World. The display demonstrates the passion for individualism and the ever present need for innovation. The cars are prime examples of the diversity of the California attitude and show how the varying styles and methods have helped create and [sic] infectious lifestyle that is envied and emulated around the globe.

Some Chinese may look to the U.S. as a beacon of car-endowed freedom, but to compare China's enthusiasm for development to that of the United States during the heady days of robber-baron capitalism (as we often do) doesn't fully do justice to the speed--and the consequent growing pains--of economic, industrial, and ecological change here. Urban and suburban development is one thing; such development at double-time is quite another (consider China's road development, or its plan to build 400 new cities over a span of 20 years).

Without many yellow lights from government (such as, for instance, a fuel consumption tax, greater research into alternative fuels, or subsidies for fuel-efficient cars) China's continuing hunger for cars doesn't just mean ever-heavier resource needs: it threatens to exclude, as Conover writes, an "innovative, alternate route" in favor of speeding down "a road that looks a little too familiar."