With all you read nowadays about China becoming such a large force in the world economy it piqued our interest. We've long known China as the source for cheap manufacturing and the motherland of mass production (but not always high-quality) aftermarket parts. In a country that's supposedly communist, it seems more capitalist each and every day. There's money to be made in China and that hasn't escaped the attention of any big American company.
As the saying goes, it's easy to make money if you have money. I couldn't agree more. If you have several thousand dollars to invest in a wheel mold you can have a Chinese factory start producing them for you at $5 a pop. Sell the wheel for $200, and you can eat and live well for a very long time. While foreign investors are certainly making money, so are many Chinese under this new regime of pseudo-capitalism. As such, you see a good amount of news coverage on the burgeoning upper class in China and young professionals with disposable incomes who want to spend, buy and consume the luxuries of capitalism.
It caught my eye when they announced the opening of a Lamborghini dealership in Beijing. People have that much money now in a "communist" country? If you have exotic cars that means you have people who want to spend money on cars, which means you have a growing car culture, which means there'll be more and more automotive enthusiasts who want to modify their vehicles for performance. Will China finally join the bandwagon with the rest of Asia of aftermarket automotive performance? It has to happen eventually given that every other Asian country (sans North Korea, thanks Kim Jong-il) has a devote car culture in its mix.
Given this new influx of wealth in China we wanted to check out the car scene for ourselves. With China courting tourists for the upcoming Beijing Olympics in 2008 travel packages are pretty cheap so we chose one that took us to the major metropolitan cities of Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai. When we say "major" we aren't kidding; these three cities' populations exceed 66 million people in total. With all of these people you're bound to see some fixed-up cars, right? Sort of.
We were very surprised by the automotive scene in China and it certainly wasn't what we expected. First and foremost, we've never seen so many Volkswagens and Buicks in our lives. The Chinese government partnered with the automotive manufacturers to set up shop in China and now there are more Buicks on the streets of China than there are in the U.S. We also saw a massive Ford plant. (So let me get this straight: Toyota builds cars in the U.S. and Ford builds cars in China, uh huh.) We saw some Hondas but they're few and far between. It's apparent that the old hard feelings between China and Japan aren't yet mended with China's bias against Japanese cars, as our guide explained to us. We did end up seeing a few of the new rich people in China, especially in Shanghai, driving Porsche Boxsters, BMWs and Mercedes. As for the cars we were looking for, the final count was two. Out of the thousands of cars we saw, we found only two fixed-up ones. Our hopes of a mushrooming youth car culture were dashed.
In hindsight it makes sense that performance cars aren't yet widely popular in China. For one, in Shanghai a driver's license costs $5,000, which is more than what most young people can afford. Additionally, it's usually the older businessmen who have money and they probably prefer the luxury car brands over a hopped-up WRX. Finally, the streets are so damn crowded in the urban areas (which is where the people with money are at) so where would they even be able to enjoy their increased horsepower? It's not like they have a bunch of racetracks to hit up. And my own two cents, I'd be deathly afraid to drive a car I care about on the streets in China. There's no regard for traffic laws and more honking than in NYC. I'm surprised more accidents don't occur because people drive insane there.
We left China with our bellies full of good food but our cameras empty of many car photos. Maybe in 10 years the car scene will change. Hopefully the traffic laws and air quality will too and then we might actually return.