In land of bicycle, car boom brings freedom of open road

Most days Leng Feng is a mild-mannered marketing consultant. But by Friday he's ready to rev up his trusty Citroën and answer the call of the open road.

Leng - as he's known in his auto club - will tackle some 4,200 miles to Xinjiang on a 40-day trip with his auto club next month. Like a burgeoning number of enthusiasts, they go on overnight outings and, of course, talk fondly about their vehicles. "The controls in my car are kind of fancy," he says, citing a priority for buyers here that trumps horsepower and size. "I believe in the romance of the French."

The car has long been a potent symbol of "having arrived," packing a triple threat of purchasing power, style, and convenience. And, not surprisingly, it holds special allure in a country where until recently the bicycle was king and mobility was limited. That blossoming love affair with wheels is likely to make China the largest car market in the world within about a decade.

Buoyed by a vibrant economy, easier credit, and improving roads, consumers are snapping up autos in unprecedented numbers - clogging urban streets and exacerbating pollution in the process. But they're also driving a social shift founded on that most capitalist of desires: the freedom to go where you want, when you want.

"New wealth in China has generated new ways of displaying status," says Alan Wachman, a China specialist at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass. "The auto offers buyers mobility and status that most Americans now take for granted."

In car terms, life really began in China around the millennium. Some 1.2 million cars rolled off the lots in 2002, a spike in demand of 30 to 40 percent. That figure jumped 70 percent in 2003, to about 2 million. Last year, Chinese bought 2.4 million cars, according to official figures, and growth is expected to be about 15 percent this year, with 10 percent becoming the annual norm by 2015.

A big difference in 20 years

It's a dramatic change for a country that in 1985 produced just 5,200 passenger cars. Forced to import more cars as demand grew, China has shifted gears, signing a flurry of joint venture agreements with makers like now-defunct American Motors Corp., Volkswagen, and Peugeot in order to establish themselves quickly in what they saw as a key industry. [Editor's note: The original version omitted the fact that American Motors Corp. is now defunct.]

"The Chinese looked around at East Asia, and saw Japan and South Korea using cars as a motor of their economic development," says Eric Harwit, professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii. "The Chinese couldn't see themselves being a first-rate modern nation unless they were making cars themselves."

Currently, China trails in per capita ownership, with about 13 cars per 1,000 people, versus some 600 per 1,000 in the US. But the pace is picking up. Less wealthy consumers are getting help from China's entry into the World Trade Organization, whose tariff reductions have encouraged domestic brands to cut prices and foreign makers to produce lower-end cars.

Changing lifestyles are also a factor. Suburban sprawl means more people are commuting to their jobs - often from areas where public transportation is inadequate.

"If you live farther away, you need a car," says Huan Xiang, as she and her husband peer into a sparkling blue VW Beetle at a dealer's market in Beijing. They bought their first car in 2000 - a Chinese Red Flag. But their suburban life demands another, Ms. Huan says - and one that makes the right impression. "The most important thing is that it's very stylish, that it says something about your character," she says.

And there are simply more opportunities to drive. Most car owners still stay close to home. But China will pour almost $6 billion over the next five years into expanding some 1 million miles of roadways, to about 1.4 million miles by 2010, and building a national grid akin to the US interstates. That system will connect 90 percent of cities with more than 200,000 people, according to Professor Harwit.

Dirty cities gets dirtier

All this growth, of course, is taking a toll. China is already home to many of the world's most polluted cities. Vehicle exhaust will account for 79 percent of total air pollution in China this year, according to official estimates. A national network of roads will allow goods to move more freely, but roads often become clogged as quickly as they're constructed: Beijing, for example, has five heavily traveled ring roads around the city and is at work on a sixth.

To address pollution, government officials are considering a new tax on big cars. They have announced fuel standards that will exceed American ones by 2007 and match the highest European standard by 2008. Foreign joint ventures will play a critical role in bringing in better low-emission technology - Toyota, for example, will produce the hybrid Prius in a joint venture in China.

But conservation measures are unlikely to dramatically stanch China's appetite for fuel. More than 80 cities have placed restrictions on some small vehicles, often for safety reasons, banning them from major thoroughfares and downtown areas. By 2020, the country is expected to have 130 million vehicles on the road, accounting for more than half of China's oil consumption. China has made no secret of its push to secure access to global oil supplies, something that has sparked tensions with the US.

And many Chinese are simply already enamored of the lifestyle that a car opens up. "Chinese people have a desire for a car deep in their hearts," says Song Jian, a professor of auto engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing. When prices started to come down after WTO, he says, more could fulfill that dream.

As a result, convincing consumers to rein in their driving may be difficult. "The limitation of movement is broken down," says Wu Zhonghua, who belongs to a VW Golf auto club. His friend Lee Yuan-wei chimes in. "You can just pack a tent, bring barbecue supplies, and move," he says.

That's why Leng joined his auto club. "I feel that the atmosphere," he says, "is very democratic and free."

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