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China's Engines of Change

The surge in car ownership promises to remake the culture.

October 19, 2003|Sam Crane | Sam Crane is a professor of Chinese politics at Williams College and is the author of "Aidan's Way."

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — This year, China became the fourth-largest market for new-car purchases in the world, behind the U.S., Japan and Germany but ahead of such automobile-conscious countries as Britain, Italy and France. The growing prosperity of the burgeoning Chinese middle class has fueled a spending spree on privately owned cars, something that was impossible in the ever-more-distant Maoist past. Though the boom in Chinese auto demand has significant business implications, it also has cultural ramifications. The rush of new cars is driving China toward a more individualistic society.

Think of the United States. After World War II, with the industrial economy in full gear, American consumers came into their own. Demand for goods of all sorts was high, manufacturing kept pace, and Henry Ford's dream of mass car ownership was recaptured, after a long hiatus of economic depression and war. From 1945 to 1955, car registrations in the U.S. doubled; they grew by an additional 50% in the next decade.

Cars brought social mobility and freedom. People moved: from farms to cities; from cities to suburbs; from east to west. Movement stirred their sense of freedom. If life was drab here, just hop in the car and move there. California's population exploded; it was the utopia yearned for by people dissatisfied with where they were, and they could get there cheaply and easily by automobile.

The cascading cultural effects of auto mobility have been legion. Cars have opened the road to fun, fun, fun, at least until Daddy takes the T-bird away. They enable drive-in and drive-through and drive-up convenience.

However frustrated we may be with gridlocked traffic, the speed of cars influences the way we work and play; their styles shape our personal identities.

Not all of this is China's future, but the upsurge of private car ownership will weaken collectivist cultural practices. In fact, it is already happening.

Beijing is awash in cars. There are now more than 2 million in the city, which may not sound like a lot compared with Los Angeles County (where there are more than 5.3 million automobiles registered), but it is the result of double-digit growth in recent years. Fifteen years ago, privately owned cars were rare; almost all the autos to be found were the property of the state or some other collective organization. Parking was not an issue: There were no specific regulations in the city until 1995. Now, traffic clogs the wide boulevards as more and more moneyed urban dwellers seek comfort and privacy in their daily commutes and fight off the frustration of not being able to find a place to park.

The seclusion of the private car, in and of itself, strengthens individualistic strains within Chinese culture that have long been limited by officially sanctioned collectivist orthodoxies. People in cars are making choices to find their own answers to problems they confront. Take the SARS epidemic, for example. The killer virus contributed to this year's record sale of private cars. Looking to avoid exposure on public transportation, those who could afford to sought out the isolation of cars. They did not wait for the government to come up with a solution; they did not depend upon employers to work it out. They took advantage of the growing auto-finance market and did something for themselves.

Not everyone can pursue such self-interested alternatives. Many people simply do not have the money to buy a car. The environmental effect of millions upon millions of vehicles in China is also creating major pollution problems. Yet, whatever the social and ecological limits, the rise in car ownership is transforming Chinese society.

Cars offer all sorts of entertaining new choices for consumers to craft a personal style, an individual flair. New highway construction has created open roads for Chinese drivers. Auto clubs are popping up to provide travel aid for domestic tourists cruising on weekend trips. Fast-food spots now sport drive-up windows. And for the young and the restless, makeshift drive-in movies offer a place to get away from prying parental oversight.

It could be argued that the liberating effects of cars in China will be limited by traditional cultural views that promote the group -- the family, the corporation, the government -- over the individual. After all, Japan and South Korea have absorbed cars into their societies; they have thoroughly modernized while preserving certain social hierarchies. Autos are part of the cultural mix in these countries, but they have not completely overthrown long-standing collectivist ideas and practices.

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