From Bicycles to BMWs

Thirty years ago, China rivaled Holland in deserving the nickname “bicycle country”. In 1989, when a bicycle made in Tianjin was presented as a gift to U.S. president George Bush during his visit to China, 1.1 billion Chinese people owned over 500 million bicycles.

Peking University professor Zheng Yefu is a bicycle lover. He never imagined that riding one would be a source of embarrassment to him. However in xxxx, while on his way to attend a conference in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, he was stopped by a security guard who told him there was no parking area inside for bicycles, only for cars. If Zheng wanted to get in, he would have to leave his bicycle outside.

“There is a popular saying: leaders have special cars; the rich drive their own cars; good companies provide shuttle buses; but only poor students and ordinary people ride bikes,” Zheng says with a sigh.

Today, China has become the world’s second largest car country. The number of vehicles in China surpassed 223 million according to statistics released in December 2011 by the China Traffic Management Bureau. By the middle of February 2012, the number of vehicles in Beijing surpassed five million, 70% of which are private cars. Daily car mileage in Beijing is higher than London, Tokyo, and Paris. As a popular joke goes, Beijingren use their cars as bicycles.

Petrol-head culture is also quickly catching on with Chinese drivers. At the end of this month, hundreds of thousands of car enthusiasts will flock to the China International Exhibition Center in Beijing to see local and international carmakers unveil their latest models during Auto China 2012. The previous Auto China, held in 2010, saw record attendance, attracting more than 760,000 visitors.

Last year a localized Chinese version of the hit UK series Top Gear was launched on the Chinese mainland. Jeremy Clarkson and James May, co-hosts of the original UK series, came to Beijing this past December to film an episode for their BBC version of the show.

China’s first car club was established in August 2009 when 14 petrol-heads in Beijing got together to start the Sport Car Club (SCC). Only those who own sports cars a class higher than the entry-level Porsche 911 are eligible to join. The club has since expanded to more than 200 people and has branches in cities across China. The most expensive car currently owned by a club member is a Pagani Zonda R, which is worth more than RMB 40 million (USD 6.32 million).

SCC members are part of China’s “second generation rich”. Despite their flashy rides, they try to keep a low profile. The July 2010 issue of GQ magazine in China published an article entitled “Chinese Kids Who Drive Sports Cars”, which profiled several SCC club members. The print magazines were recalled almost as soon as they hit the newsstands, and later reissued without the article. The digital version of the story has been widely spread by Chinese netizens and can still be found on the Internet. The same month, members of SCC showed up in Chaoyang Park with 12 Lamborghini and drove together to Chang’ an Avenue as part of the celebration for a member’s wedding. The procession was the lead story in the evening newspaper.

Recently, though, the SCC has been more open with the media about their activities. Kuan Kuan, one of the club’s founders, told Beijing Youth Daily, “We are not trying to change people’s opinion towards us, but to ‘encourage’. We hope to encourage more young people who love cars to take part in car racing legally and to promote car sports in China.

“We don’t want the public to misunderstand us. Indeed we have many young members who are ‘second generation rich,’ but we also have young members who have become successful through their own efforts.”

Zheng Huizhong, a farmer-turned-yacht businessman, recently went shopping for a car on Jinbao Street, his wife and son in tow. He could not decide whether he should buy an Aston Martin or a Ferrari.

“I like Aston Martins because of the James Bond films, but I also like Ferraris,” he said. “China’s economy is getting better and better. Price is not the problem. My concern is comfort and style.”

A decade ago the government redeveloped Jinbao Street to extend the Wangfujing business district. Today it is lined with luxury car showrooms. On one side are dealers of Ferrari, Rolls-Royce, Maserati, Jaguar and BMW, with Lamborghini, Aston Martin and Mercedes dealers opposite.

In the Aston Martin showroom, a sales lady happily introduced Zheng to the car’s special functions. As she finished her presentation she said, “This one humbly shows your different social status and identity. It is a very good choice for you.”

Vehicles have been a symbol of social status throughout China’s history. In the early 20th century, a rickshaw was the ride of choice for the Chinese middle class. According to Shenbao, the prestigious daily newspaper at that time, there were 243,000 rickshaws in Shanghai in 1931, all imported from Japan.

Today, China is the world’s top luxury car market. It is the number one market worldwide for Rolls-Royce sales. Bentley, a British luxury carmaker, sold 1,839 units in China last year, representing 95% year-on-year growth. According to Bentley chairman and CEO Wolfgang Duerheimer, his company expects China to become its top market this year. German automaker Audi recently announced that its 2011 China sales reached 313,036 units. Sales for Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) in China hit a record 42,000 units, beating its 2011 target of 40,000 units.

A Lotus showroom recently opened at the North Gate of the Workers’ Stadium. On a recent evening visit, in front of the nightclubs Mix and Vics, we saw a green Lamborghini parked next to a white Aston Martin. A red Ferrari and silver Porsche were lined up waiting for their wealthy, young owners. The extravagant cars attracted attention from everyone passing by. However, beneath the attention lie mixed feelings of admiration, jealousy, and even suspicion.

Ma Nuo, a 20-year-old contestant on the popular match-making reality television show If You are the One created a controversy last year with her now infamous quote, “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.” Nuo was responding to an unemployed suitor who asked if she would “ride a bicycle with him” on a date. Shortly after the episode aired, the government regulator in charge of broadcasters asked producers to adjust the content of the show to give less emphasis to the lifestyles of the wealthy.

Hoping to interview a BMW owner for this article, I registered on a BMW Internet forum, XCAR.com.cn, and posted a message identifying myself as a journalist from Beijing who wanted to talk to a BMW owner about their driving experience. I got a few interesting comments in reply. One said, “Do not reply to her. My friend had an experience meeting a fake journalist girl before.” Another one said, “Be careful, she is a gold digger”. 

Recently several young luxury car owners have been involved in headline-making accidents and scandals – one of the most high profile incidents involved a woman named Guo Meimei who claimed to be the general manager of an agency affiliated with the Red Cross, and was roundly criticized by Chinese netizens after showing off photos of her Maserati and Lamborghini cars.

Such criticism may explain why CPC Chongqing Committee Secretary and former Minister of Commerce Bo Xilai felt compelled to deny rumors that his son owned a red Ferrari during a press conference he gave last month in Beijing.

“Some people pour dirty water on Chongqing, on me and my family. They even said my son studied overseas and drove a red Ferrari,” he told reporters. “This is nonsense! I am very angry about it!”

It was originally published in May issue, that’s Beijing

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