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    Q & A

    How China Became a Car Country

    Zhang Jun’s new book explores how China fell in love with the personal automobile.
    Jan 09, 2024#industry#history

    When Zhang Jun walked into the Friend of Cars dealership in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in October 2006, the dealership’s staff wasn’t quite sure what to make of her.

    A doctoral student in anthropology at Yale University, Zhang wasn’t there to buy a car but to investigate how China’s booming private car market was transforming the country — a topic that seemed to amuse the dealership’s business-minded owner and manager. Nevertheless, the pair agreed to hire Zhang as an unpaid intern for four months.

    That marked the start of a nearly 10-year relationship, as Zhang returned again and again to interview staff and buyers to better understand the place of cars in the lives of China’s emerging middle class.

    Car ownership is a relatively recent phenomenon in China. The mass market for private automobiles only predates Zhang’s internship by a little more than a decade. By 2010, however, China was the largest producer and seller of light cars — those with an engine capacity of less than 1.5 liters — in the world. Industry-affiliated organizations triumphantly declared the emergence of a “car society.”

    In 2022, Chinese bought more than 26 million light cars, nearly double the total of the United States. The country is even exporting aspects of its car culture abroad, thanks in part to a world-leading new-energy vehicle sector.

    But the side effects of this culture shift are becoming hard to ignore. Traffic jams have become the norm in major Chinese cities. In 2021, more than 70% of surveyed cities in China saw an increase in the number of residents commuting over an hour to work, highlighting the growing divide between residential areas and business districts.

    According to Zhang, whose “Driving Toward Modernity: Cars and the Lives of the Middle Class in Contemporary China” came out in Chinese translation earlier this year, members of China’s middle class have come to view car ownership as vital to navigating both their family and social lives. Their perceptions of different makes and models are informed by parallel discourses concerning consumption, decency, and traditional family values.

    Sixth Tone interviewed Zhang on the role of private cars in China and the way in which they’ve remapped Chinese identity and social relations.

    Sixth Tone: How did cars make the transition from company asset to household item in China?

    Zhang Jun: Private sedans were introduced to China around the turn of the 20th century, though their use at that time was mostly limited to coastal cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. Back then, they shared the streets with pulled rickshaws. Following the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the country quickly built the First Automobile Works (in the northeastern city of Jilin), as well as other car manufacturers. These showcased the nation’s industrial strength, but the number of private car purchases dwindled, eventually coming to a total standstill. In the years that followed, all sedans were essentially company cars, while the automotive industry focused on vehicles that played an important role in production, such as trucks and buses.

    Even at the beginning of the “reform and opening-up” period (in the late 1970s), when private business burgeoned and foreign car manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Peugeot, and Jeep entered the Chinese market, private car ownership was still a controversial topic. China’s economists realized that automobiles could play an important role in China’s economic development by spearheading the growth of other industries such as petroleum, steel, and spare parts. Yet restrictions remained on the import and private ownership of cars. Of all commodities, cars were some of the last to have these restrictions lifted.

    It was only in 2000 that “helping households acquire cars” was included in China’s 10th Five Year Plan. Soon after, the Chinese government ultimately decided to open the domestic automobile market, thus eliminating a key obstacle to joining the World Trade Organization. Domestic car sales skyrocketed.

    Sixth Tone: Your research concentrates on the first generation of car owners in China. Compared to well-known car cultures like the United States, what were members of China’s middle class trying to express through the purchase of a private vehicle?

    Zhang: Chinese and American car cultures emerged under very different circumstances. American culture places an emphasis on the notion of liberty, and the portrayal of cars by the automobile industry, car advertisements, and in popular culture created an inextricable link between driving and freedom. Meanwhile, in my discussions with Chinese car owners, the word that came up most frequently was “convenience” — the convenience of being able to send your kids to school and go shopping without being at the mercy of public transit.

    What I found interesting was that, sometimes, people can appreciate the same thing, but the language they use to describe it differs. For instance, in the American context, activities such as sending your kids to school by car and driving to the mall would perhaps be interpreted as expressions of freedom, largely because of how the act of driving there was imbued with ideological significance, particularly in the wake of World War II. Though Chinese car owners also appreciate being able to do these things, they evoke that pleasure in more practical terms.

    The age at which you first purchase a car also has an impact on how you perceive that experience. For example, in American car culture, getting your driver’s license at 18 is a rite of passage marking the transition to adulthood. But by the time they took to the wheel for the first time in the ’90s and 2000s, most of China’s first generation of car owners had already formed families and careers. It’s natural that they thought of car ownership in terms of how it would improve their family lives, whether by driving around their parents in a display of filial piety or by sending their kids to school.

    Sixth Tone: In your book, you observe that the story of China’s middle-class car owners demonstrates the rise of “leisure as a structural space.” How did this change take place?

    Zhang: Under China’s old economic system — especially in large industrial cities — many urbanites worked at state-owned production units that provided adjacent housing. Many parents would even plan for their children to join their unit upon graduating. As a result, the entire household’s life revolved around the employment unit and unfolded within a very restricted space. That includes people’s social lives: their coworkers and friends often lived nearby, meaning that they could easily visit them by bike.

    This work unit-oriented way of life was dismantled in the 1990s. State-allocated housing was replaced by private home ownership, while former colleagues and friends moved to different neighborhoods. At the same time, urban economies expanded tremendously. Whereas cultural facilities and entertainment venues were once neatly tucked away in work unit complexes, they have since been relocated to shopping malls, for instance. Under those circumstances, how are you supposed to visit an old friend living on the other side of the city? How do you go to shops, or take your kid to the ice-skating rink? Cars emerged as a “convenient” answer. Some suburbs have even developed a leisure industry specifically with car-owning families in mind. Thus, the decline of the work unit system pushed people to consider how to make the best use of their time outside of work, with the car emerging as the most effective solution — or, in some cases, a prerequisite — for families seeking leisure activities.

    Sixth Tone: Another interesting passage in the book explores the role that symbolism plays in car consumption — for example, how Audi allows Chinese middle-class drivers to project a “composed” (wenzhong) image. How did these abstract concepts come to exert an influence on the Chinese market?

    Zhang: In fact, many symbols — or stereotypes — are common across the globe. For example, BMWs are often the subject of derision in China: People associate them with parvenu who drive like lunatics. But if you watch Top Gear or look at comments from Instagram users, you can see that “Beemer drivers” are the butt of jokes overseas, too. It’s as if motorheads of different nationalities have all arrived at a consensus.

    At the same time, it’s true that people’s perceptions of certain car makes and models are molded by where they live. In the social context of China, individuals are often greatly affected by the government’s decisions — not just in terms of the law but also their aesthetic preferences and values. Audi became the car of choice for many official institutions shortly after they gained access to the Chinese market. This gave Audi a positive reputation in people’s minds.

    Similarly, at large-scale events such as the Olympics opening ceremony, the Chinese public has, time and time again, witnessed processions — including processions of cars. Over time, the grandeur and uniformity of these formations have surreptitiously influenced their aesthetic sensibilities. This can be seen in the car processions that have been incorporated into the “bride-fetching” component of Chinese weddings, a phenomenon that has become so commonplace that most people now take it for granted.

    Yet, people’s acceptance of this kind of aesthetic differs depending on their age and gender. It has a greater sway over men than women — the latter, as well as younger generations overall, tend to emphasize individuality and find these black sedans boring.

    How this differentiation formed is a very broad question, but one important factor is that the first generation of car owners — largely male — were more exposed to cars in official settings, and therefore, they tend to view them as symbols of quality and status. But as the Chinese car market grows and the range of cars that advertisers present to consumers becomes increasingly diverse, so does the latter’s understanding of what makes a “good” car.

    Sixth Tone: Part of your book’s exploration of the notion of “family” involves a dialogue with Professor Yan Yunxiang, who is known in China for his work on family values. In your research into Chinese car owners, how did your perceptions of Chinese family culture differ from or resemble those of Professor Yan?

    Zhang: What’s inspiring about Professor Yan is his willingness to question and redefine his views. In 2003, he argued that “love” was an increasingly important notion in Chinese family life, with families being tied together primarily by conjugal relationships rather than intergenerational, parental relationships as they had been in the past. In other words, he believed that familial practices and perceptions of family life were becoming more individualized.

    However, in his subsequent research, Professor Yan discovered that in Chinese households, intergenerational ties remain strong, and the term “individualization” can’t accurately describe their evolution. My own viewpoint, which I elaborate on in this book, is aligned with his.

    I believe that Chinese households are multi-faceted, though they mostly act as economic entities. For example, who pays for children’s education? Or for elderly family members’ care? In China, the answer is the family. However, intergenerational relations are not purely based on economic reasoning. “Care” is a type of labor implying a degree of personal involvement that can’t entirely be purchased with money. For example, many car owners will drive to pick up their children and elderly relatives. They may find doing so tiresome, yet they feel it’s a moral obligation. To give another example, I noticed that many people’s choice of car model is heavily influenced by familial considerations. These small actions often determine whether you’ve played your role in the family well — whether you’re a good father, mother, daughter, or husband — at the same time as defining and reinforcing the significance of the family unit.

    Sixth Tone: I have quite a broad question. In your analysis of the Chinese sedan market, you focused on the impact of the “reform and opening-up” period on individuals. Why is it so important to analyze the life trajectory of ordinary people?

    Zhang: Reform was, as Deng Xiaoping said, a matter of crossing the river by touching the stones — in other words, of improvisation. History is often written in grand narratives based on hindsight, but for the part of individuals who were facing the changes, they were more concerned with practical questions: What kind of car should I import? How can I increase my quota? (Initially, there was a quota system for car imports.) How can I achieve this for the least money possible? How can I compete with other dealerships?

    Lots of little opportunities would present themselves, but seizing them still took courage. Interestingly, this environment of experimentation actually gave risk-takers greater room to try new things, even if they fell into legal gray areas. As far as they were concerned, the uncertainty of the ’90s was an opportunity in and of itself.

    Social capital was also extremely important. An individual’s status and social network had an influence on what information they could obtain, and therefore, their awareness of these opportunities. Everyone who succeeded worked hard, but working hard was no guarantee of success on its own.

    Sixth Tone: Has the focus of your research changed much since 2004?

    Zhang: One conspicuous change is that I’m now more focused on the middle class. Another is that I used to resist studying problems of urban traffic and transit, even though I knew they were important. Since then, I’ve discovered they’re unavoidable. In particular, when I was writing the chapter about parking, I gradually came to realize the importance of topics such as urbanization and urban planning. So, in my final work, there’s a lot less about cars themselves and a lot more about things to do with cars. Cars are a force that shapes many facets of our society, from relationships between family members to the planning of urban spaces to social mobility and how we perceive it.

    Translator: Lewis Wright.

    (Header image: Cyclists pass by an ad for a Shanghai Volkswagen car in Chengdu, Sichuan province, September 1986. Jean-Marc Charles/Gamma-Rapho via VCG)