Cars in China- Some Facts

"Twenty years ago, I was driving a tractor — I was a model peasant! There were almost no cars in China. I didn't learn to drive until 1988.Under Deng Xiaoping, I got lucky because I was uneducated. Educated people think in traditional ways, but Deng said we should take chances."
- a Chinese businessman who now owns a major cement factory in Beijing

Ted Conover has an interesting article about Cars in China in NYT;

“The figures behind China's car boom are stunning. Total miles of highway in the country: 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; every day, 1,000 new cars (and 500 used ones) are sold in Beijing. The astronomic growth of China's car-manufacturing industry will soon hit home for Americans and Europeans as dirt-cheap Chinese automobiles start showing up for sale here over the next two or three years. (Think basic passenger car for $10,000, luxury S.U.V. for $19,000.)…

China's first modern expressway, the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Superhighway, was built in the early 1990's by the Hong Kong tycoon Gordon Y.S. Wu. Wu studied civil engineering at Princeton in the mid-50's, when construction was beginning on the U.S. Interstate Highway System. At the same time, the New Jersey Turnpike was being widened from four lanes to many lanes, and Wu has said it inspired him. (His powerful firm, Hopewell Holdings, is named after a town near Princeton.) Though Wu ran short of money and the ambitious project had to be rescued by the Chinese government, the toll-road model of highway development caught on.

Wu's Guangzhou-Shenzhen Superhighway was the beginning of an infrastructure binge that seems to be only picking up steam: the government recently announced a target of 53,000 freeway miles by 2035. (The U.S. Interstate Highway System, 50 years old last week, presently comprises about 46,000 miles of roads.) Some new roads, especially in the less-developed western parts of the nation, are nearly empty: China is encouraging road construction ahead of industrial development and population settlement, assuming those will follow….

If highways in China's west are so far awaiting traffic, easterners have the opposite concern. As we headed south from Shijiazhuang toward Zhengzhou, the roads packed with vacationers and truck traffic, Zhu jostled for position with all the other people who were late getting where they were going. His style of driving helped me understand better why China, with 2.6 percent of the world's vehicles, had 21 percent of its road fatalities (in 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available)….

Three Gorges Dam, one of the largest construction projects in history, seemed a fitting first attraction for our trip, evoking superlatives in this land of superlatives. It has cost an estimated $75 billion so far (including corruption and relocation costs); it will require more than a million people to be relocated; it would generate more hydroelectric power than any dam ever had; and it spans the Yangtze, the third-longest river in the world. The reservoir began filling up in 2003 and has six years left to go; it presents a huge military target….

The next morning we hiked through the misty, craggy hills of Shennongjia. The area, known as "the Roof of Central China," is a Unesco biosphere reserve of 272 square miles, with six peaks measuring up to 10,190 feet above sea level. It was equally famous, among our group, as the home of China's Bigfoot. This creature, in the local lore, lumbered through the mists with a big-bosomed mate; an artist's rendition of the hairy couple appeared in the corner of a park billboard. But though the trails were beautiful and mysterious and we could imagine an ape-man happy there, none were spotted….


My test question was speeding. National highways were typically posted with limits of 50 miles per hour, and expressways up to 75 miles per hour, and the orientation brochure that each driver had received from the Beijing Target Auto Club insisted that we adhere to those limits. ("This is only self-driving, not car racing!" the brochure read. "Speeding is not necessary.") Yet all the drivers, including Zhao, paid the rules no attention whatsoever, often driving 100 m.p.h. or more. Police cars were seldom seen; when drivers spotted them, to my surprise, they paid no attention at all. The cops rarely used radar, it turned out, and they almost never tried to pull you over….

The more instructive comparison, as we stood on this fancy bit of highway surrounded by rice fields and, here and there, people at work in them, was with the rural poor, the peasantry, the hundreds of millions of Chinese who do not yet (and, you imagine, will not in their lifetimes) share this prosperity. Many villages still are not connected to roads at all. When an expressway just south of here was completed last year, I was told sotto voce in Beijing, a series of demonstrations by peasants at a toll plaza delayed its opening. They were angry because the road had taken their land, and this, we are now seeing, is the story all over China: the government itself counted nearly 80,000 mass protests in 2005 alone. The country's economic growth is fantastic, the urban atmosphere heady. . .but then you see through the glass the peasants just in from the countryside, burlap bags at their feet, looking utterly from another planet, representatives of hundreds of millions of others, almost standing still while Zhu and Li zoom on by…

Creeping along on the highway, we talked about how the Beijing government was trying to control the huge new popularity of cars: one solution to the growing chaos of the streets has been to severely restrict motorcycle use in the city. Zhu thought that was better than Shanghai's fix: trying to cut down on car ownership by setting a high price (presently almost $5,000) on car registration. Trying to ease traffic and cut down on accidents, Shanghai had even banned bicycles from many main streets, news that still amazes me.

An ebullient atmosphere surrounds the automobile in China. You can see the excitement continuing, even growing, as more people buy cars: China now has fewer than seven of them for every thousand people, roughly the same level as the United States had in 1915. Everyone expects the ownership rate to keep growing, which means there could be 130 million vehicles on China's roads by 2020. By 2030, according to one estimate, there could be as many as in the United States…

While I was in Beijing, the journal Nature reported that the city's air pollution was much worse than previously thought. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide have increased 50 percent over the past 10 years, and the buildup is accelerating. According to The Wall Street Journal, Beijing's sulfur-dioxide levels in 2004 were more than double New York's, and airborne-particulate levels more than six times as high. Last year China enacted its first comprehensive emissions law, but it is expected to have little effect on the transport sector's copious carbon-dioxide emissions, which by 2030 are expected to exceed those of the United States, the world's largest producer. The nation's growing demands for gasoline make it increasingly our competitor for the finite global supply; by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency, China may be importing as much oil as we do.”

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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on July 2, 2006 11:59 AM.

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