PEKING — After a few years of flirtation with foreign-made status symbols like the Mercedes-Benz and the Cadillac, China will soon begin making its own luxury cars once again.
The official newspaper Workers Daily reported Tuesday that production of the Hong Qi (Red Flag) limousine--the massive, gas-guzzling cars used for years by Chinese leaders such as Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Premier Chou En-lai--will be resumed early next year in the Manchurian city of Changchun.
The state-owned enterprise that manufactured the Red Flag for two decades, Changchun's Automobile Factory No. 1, stopped making it in 1980 because of the car's excessive weight and high fuel consumption.
Mercedes, Cadillacs Favored
Since then, Chinese officials who qualify for chauffeur-driven luxury cars have tended to gravitate toward the Mercedes. Last year, China International Trust & Investment Corp., China's conduit for attracting foreign investment, also bought a fleet of 20 Cadillac Fleetwood limousines from General Motors.
China will start producing Red Flags again with the help of new, more fuel-efficient engines obtained from Ford Motor. The Changchun factory has also developed a new design for the Red Flag.
The old car was something less than an engineering masterpiece. The models produced in the early 1970s had a 150-cubic-inch, eight-cylinder engine that generated extremely low horsepower.
Nevertheless, they offered high-ranking cadres both space and privacy. A glass divider separated the chauffeur from his passengers in the rear compartment, which had upholstered cushions and jump seats for extra passengers.
The decision to revive the Red Flag comes at a time when the Chinese regime, facing a severe shortage of foreign exchange, is attempting to curb the nation's appetite for imported goods.
During the economic boom of 1984 and early 1985, many local governments and enterprises used the autonomy that they gained under China's decentralization program to import thousands of new cars, such as Toyotas and Mercedes. Then, last fall, the Chinese regime imposed a two-year ban on most kinds of imported cars.
Early this year, Xiang Nan, then the Communist Party secretary of Fujian province, ordered all high-ranking cadres within his domain to turn in the luxury imported cars that they had obtained last year.
The Workers Daily story did not say how many Red Flags will be manufactured next year or what they will cost. More than a decade ago, factory officials estimated the production cost of the old cars at $25,000 each.
As even the wealthiest Chinese lack that sort of money, virtually all of the new cars will be supplied to government or Communist Party officials.