China's sledgehammer activists

The destruction of two Mercedes Benzes brings consumer rights to the fore in China.

Mercedes Benz is the No. 1 prestige auto in China: It's the lead car in Chinese weddings, the executives' car of choice.

But when four south-China zoo keepers dragged a broken Mercedes into a public square with a water buffalo, then pulverized the car with sledgehammers, they set off an East-meets-West story so popular that, as it was resolved last week, nearly every Chinese with a TV or newspaper had an opinion on it.

The "Benz case" has been a year-long Rorschach test on local culture and feeling in China. As China modernizes at a time of growing national pride, symbols of the outside world continue to clash within the country in strange ways, even feeding an expanding awareness of consumer rights. But whether the Mercedes bashing is a story of consumer awareness, or Chinese nationalism, or just great media hype – is anyone's guess. Some experts say it is all three.

The drama began when the top brass of the Wuhan Wild Animal Zoo, known until recently for housing the world's oldest panda, bought a Mercedes two-door sports car. It was the zoo's fourth Mercedes. How officers of an endangered-species zoo can afford four cars costing $100,000 each is a fair question. But that rarely came up in more than 200 car stories written just this year in the Chinese press.

The Mercedes developed computer glitches, an oil leak, and other problems.

The zoo took the car for repairs – four times. They towed the car to Beijing again for repairs and help. Nothing worked. The zoo contacted local consumer associations, an import-export trade group, and a research team in Tianjin. No go.

Finally, with the warranty set to expire in December, the zoo raised the ante. They faxed Mercedes in Hong Kong asking for a replacement car – and warning of "drastic action" otherwise.

"We heard that in the US, under a 'lemon law,' any car that has problems after the third repair can be returned and changed to a new car," says Liu Yueling, the zoo spokesman. "Our car has been fixed five times in a year."

Mercedes answered,saying the gas in Wuhan is too low in octane, 93 grade instead of the 97 grade suggested in the owner's manual. This fact is true, and the most damaging fact, says a BMW dealer in Beijing familiar with the case. (Later, zoo officials said the owners manual was not written in Chinese, an answer the BMW dealer described as "flimsy.")

Mercedes let it be known: no new car.

So, as 30 journalists gathered on Dec. 26, zoo-manager Zhao Jun shouted "start" and four employees smashed away. They avoided hitting the engine or crucial internal parts.

Images of a Mercedes under attack hit the vernacular Chinese press like a tabloid-sized grenade. In the resulting miniseries of suspense, the zoo keepers played the role of innocent victims exploited by foreign corporate indifference and bias, ordinary Chinese standing up like patriots. Daily updates included blow-by-blow headlines like "Zoo Loses Patience," "Mercedes Benz: Pride and Prejudice," and "Mercedes should denounce itself."

In mid-outcry, Mercedes took the questionable tack of demanding a public apology from the zoo – for busting their product on TV. This added fuel to the fire and contributed to a consistent feeling among Chinese that Mercedes did not tr

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