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Shifting into Drive


Text by Yin Xing

Thirty years ago, 5,000 passenger vehicles were made on the Chinese mainland every year. By last year, the figure had risen to 18.4 million. No country on earth has ever bought so many cars in so little time.

Drivers, Start Your Engines

Fifty years ago, when Chairman Mao Zedong visited the China First Automobile Works (FAW) plant, he asked the foreman when Chinese people can sit in a Chinese-made sedan. This inspired FAW to create the first Chinese-made car one year later. However, it was not the first private car in China. That title belongs to the automobile former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai awarded Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang, a gift containing many political undertones. At that time, to own a car was an unimaginable luxury for an ordinary Chinese person. It was not until 1986 that the first real private car, imported from Poland, cruised the streets of Shanghai. That Fiat sedan’s license plate was Shanghai-AZ0001, designating it the first private car in China.

China’s development has transformed the car from a luxury goods into a modern daily necessity.

Beijing sets a good example. It took the city 48 years to amass its first one million cars, but doubled it six years later, and added a third million in half of that time. Tokyo took five years and ten years to reach those statistics. Beijing took two years to get to four million cars; Tokyo took 12. At the beginning of 2012, cars in the capital numbered 5.01 million, of which 70 percent are private.

Cars have made an indelible impact on the daily life of Chinese people. The average number of cars in Beijing has exceeded 200 for every thousand people, whereas in some western provinces, the figure stays below 10. Nationally, there are about 50 cars for one thousand persons, according to a 2009 statistic.

“The growth of the vehicle market is shifting to smaller cities from big cities,” predicts Lang Xuehong, an automotive analyst with Sinotrust International Information & Consulting (Beijing) Co., Ltd. “After the promotion of preferential policies, the suburban market is warming up. I think the nation is expected to enter a new automotive era within ten years. “

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