Saturday, June 6, 2009

Car Culture

A Chinese company placed a bid on GM's Hummer brand this week.

The New York Times' "Week in Review" has a nice summary and analysis about his situation:

Image from China Daily

Even in a world mostly done being amazed by the ironies of globalization, last week managed to produce something fresh and previously unfathomable: General Motors, newly bankrupt and struggling to raise cash, agreed to sell its Hummer division to a company from China.

Yes, that Hummer, maker of the famously gas-guzzling behemoths whose menacing width and armor trace their provenance to the American military, is now set to become the property of Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company, in a land officially still called the People’s Republic of China.

It might seem incongruous, this plaything for the unabashed American road warrior shifting to a country where the bicycle once ruled and collectivism was an organizing principle. (What next? Harley-Davidson snapped up by the Vietnamese?) But that’s just until you contemplate the realities of modern China, and the nouveau riche in the growing suburbs, setting down lawn furniture inside gated complexes of villas, shopping at big-box stores and driving luxury cars. China seems intent on nurturing the very sorts of landscapes and consumer attitudes that produced the Hummer.

More than a merely economic event — the latest sign of China’s rise and American struggles — the deal is a cultural moment. It seems no accident that a Chinese company is taking possession of Hummer. China has come to embrace many of the attributes and modes of consumption that Americans may reflexively consider their own, complete with the sprawl and tangle of highways familiar to any resident of Los Angeles or Atlanta.

As China has cast off its ideological past and aggressively modernized its cities, it might reasonably have been expected to look to Europe or Japan for models of urban planning. Like Japan — home to one of the most sophisticated rail networks on earth — China is densely populated and dependent on imported oil. As is true in Europe, China’s major cities are surrounded by productive agricultural lands, making tightly clustered growth seem prudent.

Instead, in a choice familiar to Americans, China has put the automobile at the center of contemporary life. China has torn down older buildings in every major city to make way for more vehicles. It has erected an impressive network of highways crisscrossing the vast country. Air quality and energy efficiency have been outweighed by reverence for the car.

This has not happened randomly.

Read On
Later on in the article, the writer talks of an interesting exchange that he had with a car-buyer in Beijing.
“Why do you want a car?” I asked a young professional couple shopping at a car lot outside Beijing in 2002. The question elicited an irritated glare from the woman, as if I were condescending. “Same reason you want a car,” she said. “We want what you want.”

She did not mean merely the ability to go where she pleased, but also the geography the car enables — the villas with their backyards and modern conveniences; the superstores selling microwave-ready food; the new golf courses.
The American dream of the freedom of car ownership seems to be taking root in China. I agree with the author here; buying and owning a car is a dream come true for Chinese people.

One of the interesting things highlighted in this article is China's conscious decision to mimic America's car culture and dependence on individual car owners. China could've tried developing like Japan or Europe, but instead is choosing to follow the path laid out by their American counterparts.

Will China ever achieve suburbal sprawl on the scale America has achieved? I doubt it, but it's important to remember that China, despite its huge population, is not that crowded or dense. Sure, Chinese cities are packed full of people. But the outskirts of those cities contain vast swaths of uncultivated land. There is a lot of room for sprawl in China.

My city, Xi'an, is moving out a very rapid rate. If you go a couple miles outside of the city in any direction, you will be met by development. Past those construction projects, you will encounter fields and fields, which will, in coming decades, be developed more and more.

In terms of potential climate change and humanity's dependence on oil, the prospects of the hundreds of millions of cars that could one day be clogging China is scary. But as an American, it's hard for me to argue that they should avoid this path.

Car ownership is amazing. I can sit here and talk about the reasons why its bad that China goes down this path. But in the end, I miss having the car I had in America and the opportunities - the ability to get across town, the state, or the country quickly and comfortably - it provided for me.

Rationally, it'd probably be good for China's long-term interests to try to develop new urbanism, but it has the right to do otherwise. Personally, I'm interested in the concepts of urban living based on not owning a car. And in the future, a city or town in America that isn't completely dependent on cars is a very attractive sounding idea to me.

But I can understand how and why car ownership is appealing to Chinese people. And even if I couldn't, barring an energy collapse, I don't see how or why the Chinese could be convinced not to go down the path of encouraging car ownership.


Pat said...

Cars suck - their "freedom" has a price and it comes in terms of gas, maintenance, insurance and a slew of other costs.

This was a stupid decision.

Mark said...

Pat, you have to realize that a large percentage of people buying cars in China have absolutely no concern about money.

A lot of these new car buyers are the nouveau rich who've cashed in on China's rise.

While there are more peasants and middle-class people buying cars, it's not as if your 张三李四 (any Tom, Dick, or Harry) are going out and buying on cars. If that was the case, there'd be lots, lots more cars sold every month than there currently are.

Another thing to take into consideration about China and the country's car buying is the quality of the its public transportation.

I used to take a bus at 5:30PM at rush hour in Xi'an's high-tech zone. Standing, jam-packed on a public bus with other business men and sweaty migrants everywhere is not a fun experience. Particularly in the hot or cold. During rush hours, taxis are pretty much impossible to find too. And for longer distances a train can be comfortable, but don't even think about getting on one around the time of a national holiday.

So yeah, cars are expensive. But a huge percentage of the Chinese people buying cars don't care at all about this. And the comfort they get out of the purchase makes it well worth the cost.

Ramesh said...

Not the focus of your post, but what is Sichuan Tengzhong doing ? Its a machinery company that also makes industrial vehicles like cement mixers. Now what on earth are they going to do with Hummer. Bet the folks running Hummer can't point out Chengdu on a map. This seems to be one of those vanity fuelled acqusitions and how this can succeed beats me.

Mark said...

Good point, Ramesh. I've obviously never heard of that company. Have no idea what plans they have for Hummer.

Mark said...

Hey Ramesh. I saw an article on Sichuan Tengzhong today -

Also, I was reading a book I brought to college from China this week - "Asian Power and Politics: The Cultural Dimensions of Authority" by Lucian Pye.

The following quote caught my eye:

"During Mao Zedong's rule the ideal of national autarky was carried out to the point of trying to make every province self-sufficient. The stated goal was the absurd idea that eventually every province would have its own automobile industry, and the ideal was that there should be no inequalities among the provinces."

So it looks like China has a tradition going back to Mao of wanting to develop its car industry.