If you own a car in China, you're one in 6 million. But that may change as first car dealerships open

THREE textile workers in crumpled business suits gathered around the cream-colored Volga sedan. They came from Inner Mongolia, and the sturdy Soviet car seemed suitable to the driving conditions back home. They hoped it was for sale.

But the new car, parked in front of the Vehicle Trading Center, already had been sold for 68,000 yuan (about $24,000). The car-hunting party was even more discouraged to learn there was a six-month wait for a new car at Peking's only automobile sales office.

China is one of the last countries on earth to be spared the agony and ecstasy of modern, private transportation. Private vehicles are rare to nonexistent.

The numbers average out to about one passenger car for every 6 million people in China. This compares with one car for every 25 people in neighboring Hong Kong and one for every five people in Japan.

And, until a few months ago, there was no place in China where people could go to buy a car or truck, even if they had the cash. Even now that China's first sales offices have opened their doors, it's still very difficult to drive away in a new car.

In Peking, some 200 people a day pour into the trading center's newly built offices to look over glossy brochures and to study a chalkboard listing the prices and models of cars and trucks for sale.

There is no showroom and there are seldom any vehicles to inspect. The center provides no servicing and no financing -- cash must be paid in advance. And buyers have to travel to the port of delivery to pick up imported models -- to Tianjin (21/2 hours away by train) or more likely to a port near Canton (36 hours by train).

``Anyone who has the money can buy a car from us,'' claims Lu Xue Hai, deputy general manager of the Peking Vehicle Trading Center.

He says buyers need only a letter of introduction -- not a permit, he insists -- from their work unit, neighborhood committee, or village government. The letter must confirm the need for a vehicle and attest that it will not be resold for profit.

Prospective buyers who have the letter, who are prepared to pay cash, and who are willing to travel for pickup are often discouraged by the long wait.

There is a six-month wait for the popular Japanese Toyotas and Italian Fiats. The Soviet Volga and Polish Polonez sedans are also in short supply. The wait is about the same at the five other trading centers in the cities of Shenyang, Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongqing, and Xian, all of which opened recently. In the first two months of business, the centers sold 7,000 vehicles, mainly trucks.

Owning a car in China is so unusual it hasn't become a status symbol. Out of some 3 million vehicles on China's roads, about 170,000 are passenger cars. Most are state-owned.

In Peking, a city of 9.5 million people, fewer than 1,000 Chinese own their own cars, according to local residents. (A spokesman for the traffic office of Peking's public security bureau said the official number was a secret.)

Car owners include top officials, celebrities, or leading intellectuals. Recently some ordinary citizens have begun operating private taxis in the city. Some prominent ``patriots,'' who moved to the mainland from Taiwan have been given cars by the Chinese government.

One actor who bought a second-hand car from a foreign diplomat says that his car offers more than a convenience. He often goes to the theater wearing makeup and costumes, and before he had a car, he says, he had to travel by bus.

``On the way to work, I was surrounded by people who were curious about me since they recognized me from films,'' he says. ``Now I can commute without trouble.''

The actor says many others in his troupe are now looking to buy cars, though they will certainly have to pay much more than the 4,000 yuan ($1,400) he paid two years ago.

Prices for imported cars are high. The cheapest model, a Fiat 126p two-door sedan, sells for 23,000 yuan ($8,000). The next cheapest car costs twice that much. The Toyota Crown four-door sedan, popular with officials, sells for 80,000 yuan ($28,500), though the trading center's chalkboard notes it is not currently available. The Toyota Crown Superdeluxe sells for 115,000 yuan ($41,000).

How can people, such as the textile workers from Inner Mongolia, afford such prices?

``It was unthinkable a few years ago, but now there are many `specialized households,' '' says one of the workers.

``In Inner Mongolia there are people who have saved up more than 200,000 yuan [$70,000].''

Under China's rural economic reforms, begun six years ago, specialized households are those in which families are permitted to earn their living from some independent business such as animal husbandry, handicrafts, or service industries. Some of these families have become wealthy and can afford private transportation.

However, there are a few individual customers who can afford a car or truck. Reportedly, 10 self-employed Peking residents have purchased private cars from the center since March, paying about 80,000 yuan ($28,600) each.

Car prices at the trading centers include customs, taxes, and service charges, all of which increase the base price by 80 percent for trucks and 150 percent for cars. The base price is set by the State Materials Bureau.

``We fix the price according to demand,'' says Chen Ping, director of the bureau's division of vehicles, which controls sales at the trading centers. She says that since 1978 many farmers have wanted to buy vehicles and can afford to pay cash. But there is a shortage, and prices are fixed at a high level.

``It's a seller's market,'' says a grinning He Jian Rui, sales manager for the trading center in Peking.

``I expect it will continue that way for the next three to five years.''

Transportation is one of the priority industries in China's modernization drive, and demand for motor vehicles far exceeds current production capacity. The state plans to produce 363,000 vehicles this year, up 25 percent from last year. But only 5,000 of these will be cars.

Some 100,000 cars were imported in 1984, and industry officials estimate that China will need 600,000 new cars every year to meet demand between now and the year 2000. The market for cars is so brisk that car smuggling from Hong Kong has become big business.

As cars and trucks have become more numerous, traffic congestion has become a problem in Peking.

The city's main intersections can be jammed during the workday with buses, trucks, and a new fleet of Japanese taxi cabs imported during the past year.

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