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A Country on Wheels

 

Almost every morning, Zhang Wuchang, 68, watches from his balcony as his son drives his grandson to school. The highlight of his day is seeing his grandson roll down the car window to wave to him.

“I used to take my son to school when he was a child,” Zhang recalls, “but I rode a bicycle. In those days, bicycles far outnumbered cars on Beijing’s streets. Now, the situation is reversed: cars have taken over the roads.”

The first Chinese-made car came off the assembly line over 50 years ago. In 1958, China’s First Automobile Works (FAW) produced the nation’s first Red Flag limousine, which was modeled after an imported 1955 Chrysler sedan. The company borrowed the Chrysler from Jilin University of Technology and incorporated several Chinese elements in their design. In September of that year, China Pictorial covered Red Flag’s Beijing debut.

However, due to the country’s shortage of steel and lack of industrial design capabilities at the time, China’s auto industry remained underdeveloped in the following two decades. Only a few domestic cars were on the roads, such as the Red Flag sedans, which were used only for high-ranking officials, and some Shanghai-brand vehicles that only a tiny minority was able to afford. In fact, from the 1960s to the 80s, the Shanghai sedan was the only mass-produced model in China.

November 25, 1991, marked the end of an era, when, at 2:30 p.m., the last Shanghai car rolled off the line of the Shanghai Automobile Plant, which then shifted its resources to producing the Santana, in cooperation with Volkswagen of Germany. Since then, foreign automakers have flooded into China, eager to take advantage of the potential Chinese market. The joint ventures produced more affordable vehicles that enabled thousands of Chinese people to realize the once lofty dream of owning an automobile, but snatched a massive piece of the Chinese market from domestic automakers.

Since 2001, China’s private auto industry has seen exponential growth. After its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December of that year, China further opened its auto market. The industry has enjoyed a boom characterized by increasingly diverse models and declining prices. The newfound purchasing ability of private buyers has contributed to the majority of the growth, which has provided domestic manufacturers with the opportunity to expand their market share.

According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China had 5.54 million cars on the road in 1990, of which 14.8 percent were privately owned. The latest statistics from the country’s public security department report that the vehicle count has now passed 76 million. In Beijing alone, the vehicle count increases by 10,000 every week. The staggering numbers evidence modern China’s love affair with automobile. But, of course, the surging automobile count is causing new problems such as traffic jams and air pollution. Since the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has enacted a vehicle restriction rule, which bans private cars from the city proper on one specific weekday according to the last number of their license plate. Zhang Xiaoyu, vice president of the China Machinery Industry Federation, is aware that the rise of Chinese automobiles poses new challenges. “Environmental protection and energy conservation are two key issues China must tackle along the road to becoming both the world’s biggest auto producer and consumer,” he remarks.

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