Li Wen’s Citroen car showroom was silent and deserted Wednesday, save for clumps of bored salesmen in red and blue anoraks with nothing to do.
Two weeks earlier, Mr. Li recalls, “it was packed. We were open till 3 in the morning, there were 200 people in here, and all customers could do was say whether they wanted a car or not. It took 10 minutes to sell a car that night. There was no bargaining.”
Since then, Li has not sold a single vehicle at any of the four dealerships he runs. Like every other automobile dealer in Beijing, he knows he won’t see another client for another three weeks, thanks to drastic new government rules designed to get a grip on the city’s increasingly appalling traffic.
In 2009, China overtook the US to become the world's largest consumer of cars and it's still growing rapidly. The number of cars on Beijing’s roads has nearly doubled in the past five years, making driving in the city center at almost any hour a nightmare.
The government banned all car sales in the capital from Dec. 24 until its new lottery system comes up with the names of the 20,000 lucky applicants who will have the right to buy license plates this month.
One hundred thousand wannabe car owners have so far put their names in the drawing, to be announced on Jan. 26.
The lottery system will authorize the purchase of 240,000 cars this year. Another 160,000 are expected to be bought by customers who have their existing cars destroyed, or who sell their vehicles to used car dealers – they will be allowed to keep their plates and will be exempt from the lottery.
“All in all we expect car sales in Beijing to drop this year by 50 percent from 2010,” when sales totaled about 850,000, says Li.
Announcing the new rules last month, the deputy head of Beijing’s municipal government, Zhou Zhengyu, acknowledged that “traffic management has not been able to keep pace” with the rising number of private cars on the roads, and that “rush hour traffic jams have become a major problem in certain areas.”
Even some would-be car buyers with only a slim chance of winning the lottery say they agree with the restrictions.
“The government should have done this 10 years ago,” says Wang Xinyan, a sales clerk, as her husband filled out the form to enter this month’s lottery at a government office. “It’s a bit late now, and it’s hard to say what the impact will be.”
Li, who accepts that his dealerships have contributed to there being “way too many cars in Beijing”, hopes that the new license plate limitations “will give the government two or three years to improve public transport.” The discomfort of traveling on Beijing’s slow and overcrowded buses, and its still skeletal metro network, has encouraged many to drive their cars to work despite the congestion they contribute to and suffer from.
The new regulations also increase parking fees in Beijing, and ban cars with out-of-city plates from driving in the city at rush hours. That rule is not aimed at visiting drivers, who are scarcely a problem; it is designed to stop Beijingers trying to get around the restrictions by buying their cars and plates in neighboring provinces, where there are no limits on vehicle sales.