Move over, bicycle! China falls in love with the car

Monday, March 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SHANGHAI, China (AP) _ Jia Zhengyi's face lights up as she tells how a new Volkswagen has changed her life.

A weekend escape from crowded Shanghai used to be an ordeal of trains, buses and luggage. Now, Jia and her husband hit the highway in their royal-blue Passat. Running errands with their 7-month-old son and his diaper bag are a breeze.

``We just put it all in the car,'' says Jia, a 28-year-old bank employee.

China is falling in love with the car. For the growing minority who can afford one, it's a fuel-injected, air-conditioned revelation _ status symbol, business tool and social liberator.

The ``bicycle kingdom'' better known for its armies of two-wheeled commuters is entering a Golden Age of Driving. In China's version of 1950s America, the government is spending like never before on highways, broad urban avenues and landscaped expressways.

Nearly every foreign maker is trying to break into China's highly restricted car market. General Motors, Toyota and others are cranking up production here, promising lower prices and better selection.

The trend is feeding a surge in car-related businesses. Banks are dabbling in car loans. Drive-in movie theaters and private driving schools are springing up. Auto clubs offer emergency roadside repairs.

For China's cities, there is a dark side: traffic jams and some of the world's worst smog.

Yet the government wants more. It is considering trying to boost car sales with cheaper loans, lower taxes and regulatory changes.

A car is a dream beyond the reach of most Chinese, costing up to fifty times the average urban wage of $750 a year.

But a surprisingly large number of entrepreneurs and professionals _ the chief beneficiaries of two decades of capitalist-style reform and surging urban incomes _ are splurging on new wheels.

Only a tiny share of China's 1.26 billion people drive. But the number of private cars is growing by 30 percent a year, with 3 million already on the road, the government says.

Sales to the new rich in the booming financial center of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, are climbing by 200 percent a year, according to state media.

General Motors, which set up production in China to avoid high import taxes, has taken deposits from 15,000 buyers for an inexpensive family oriented sedan. The Sail, based on an Opel model sold in Europe, will be available beginning in April.

Jia and her husband, Wang Xiaolan, bought their Chinese-made Passat in December for $37,000, thanks to a bank loan and their salaries as members of China's professional elite. Wang uses the car as a salesman for a Singaporean-owned marine services company in Shanghai's port.

``I couldn't do my job without it,'' says Wang, a driving pioneer who got his license in 1991 to improve his chances of finding work.

Even Chinese without cars can answer the call of the open road, thanks to rental agencies in bigger cities. French automaker Citroen is reportedly considering starting China's first nationwide rental chain.

It's a dangerous love affair. Though China still has relatively few cars, its crowded cities are choking on traffic.

Beijing's narrow lanes are stuffed with honking, exhaust-belching traffic at rush hour. A police radio station broadcasts bulletins on how to avoid chronic congestion. In the countryside, roads are devouring scarce farmland, environmentalists warn.

Driving in China isn't for the faint of heart.

Most drivers have only a few years' experience. Many drive as if they were still cycling, weaving from lane to lane without signaling and frightening crowds of pedestrians. Drivers run red lights and park on sidewalks.

Thousands drive on licenses bought from corrupt officials or obtained through personal connections. News reports on fatal crashes often note the driver didn't bother getting a license at all.

In Shanghai, traffic accidents kill an average of four people a day, police say. The city of 13 million people reported 41,262 crashes last year.

Photographer Zhao Bendi has turned his asphalt angst into art. In a self-portrait shown at the Shanghai Art Museum this winter, Zhao lies in the street surrounded by taxis spewing exhaust. A cartoon speech bubble above his head cries out: ``I was poisoned! Avenge me!''

Shanghai, one of the world's most crowded cities, is fighting traffic paralysis with a mix of taxes and rules to discourage car buyers. The strategy is unusual for a city that, with factories for GM and Volkswagen, qualifies as the Detroit of China.

The city has turned a seven-block stretch of its main avenue, Nanjing Road, into a pedestrian mall lined with shops and restaurants. To cut demand for buses and taxis, train travelers arriving at Shanghai Station get a free subway ride.

Shanghai also throws up roadblocks for driver's license applicants with high fees and multiple written and behind-the-wheel tests.

Jia and her husband, Wang, are undaunted. They already talk of getting their son into one of the Shanghai high schools that teach American-style driver's education classes.

And Jia is studying for her own license.

``Now that we have a car, it's just something I have to do,'' she says.