Every weekend in the quasi- urban wasteland of the Chaobai river outside Beijing, Chinese yuppies congregate to skid their sports utility vehicles around the dry river bed. Members of the Haval car club are discovering the freedom and sense of power that stems from being behind the wheel.
This is a lesson that comes to every culture that learns to drive. But the owners are also indulging a peculiarly Chinese sense of individuality, using cars to push the personal boundaries of a conformist society.
The liberal use of stickers, decals, furry seat covers, dashboard-mounted perfume canisters and customised slogans makes each Haval – a model produced by Great Wall, a local automaker, and until recently called the Hover – an expression of its owner’s personality. No one at the offroad caper can easily mistake his or her car for anyone else’s.
No country on earth has ever bought so many cars in so little time as China. Thirty years ago, 5,000 passenger vehicles were made on the mainland annually; last year, the figure was 11m. That boom is having profound effects, both inside and outside the country: cars are changing Chinese culture and China is changing the global automotive industry.
Overseas, Chinese tastes are beginning to shape the cars sold worldwide, as manufacturers increasingly tailor their models to meet the demands of what has become the world’s largest car market. Within China, the birth of a vibrant new culture of the automobile is boosting sales of everything from chrome wheels to prosthetic limbs – inexperienced drivers are prone to gruesome crashes.
The hitherto bicycling masses, or at least the richer among them, are buying, financing, servicing, decorating and wrecking cars at a rate not seen since America in the days of the Model T, Japan in the 1960s or Korea in the 1980s. It is very much a car boom with Chinese characteristics – and it is having a profound effect on everything from the economy to the fabric of society.
Chinese are buying cars when their income hits the same threshold that prompted mass automisation in Europe, Japan and South Korea. But China’s car culture is evolving very differently from elsewhere, says Bill Russo, head of Beijing’s Synergistics, an automotive consultancy, and former head of Chrysler in China. “This is a culture that people from afar see as very uniform, but when you experience it at first hand you realise how unique and personal people like to be?.?.?.?because they want to break away from the pack.”
Car clubs capture the paradigm of highly personalised consumption within a crowded culture. Yet the sense of flashback is intense. Haval car club members drink Coke, barbecue meat over portable grills and eat off the tailgates of their 4x4s in an unconscious parody of America, the mother of all car cultures, in its mid-20th century automotive golden age.
At the same time, though, they brew Chinese tea and heat up packet noodles on their bit of what passes for the Beijing countryside, only a few hundred metres from the nearest crane and building site. And they make a point of exchanging business cards: for China’s car boom is encouraging not just physical mobility but a new social mobility too.
The car club’s head, who goes by the handle Wawa (or “baby”) and comes from the nation’s north-east, is using her car to overcome her status as an outsider to Beijing. A feisty 29-year-old with a one-year-old driving licence, she guns her vehicle up and down a steep slope above the river bank – and masterminds a relief effort when one of the club’s novice drivers inevitably gets mired in sand.
“Before I bought a car, I stayed at home surfing the internet to make friends,” she says. “Owning a car gets me out of the internet world.”
The enthusiasts she meets help to broaden not just her social circle but also the all-important web of relationships that underpin business success in China. Wawa says she meets people from different professions – and different “social levels” – that she could never meet without a car.
Apart from making friends and influencing people, club members also get together to spend money on everything to do with cars – from buying the ubiquitous Hello Kitty dashboard ornaments to organising long-distance road trips as far afield as Tibet.
Their spending power has begun to fuel a secondary boom in all things car-related. From servicing to accessories, finance, insurance and rentals, crash repair and a second-hand market, a whole new ecosystem is growing up around China’s car boom. This offers attractive investment options to early movers, industry analysts say. “Right now there are 80m cars on the road in China,” says Mr Russo. “By 2020 there will be three to four times that number, so the impact on all the downstream businesses?.?.?.?is only beginning.”
Gaps in these industries are huge: hotels, restaurants and other services for long-distance drivers are still rudimentary. Though the Chaobai river park is a well-known tourist destination, it lacks public toilets: the car club has to corral four cars in a square to create a makeshift privy. Plans for an overnight outing have to be shelved, it transpires, because the family hostel the group usually uses has no heating.
Car dealers in China will be among the first to benefit, says Ivo Naumann of AlixPartners, a US-based consultancy, in Shanghai. While selling new cars is a low-margin business, he adds, dealers’ profitability will shoot up as those on the road age, boosting demand for higher-margin service and repair work. “In two to three years, China’s car dealers will experience a boom that has never occurred before,” he says.
China’s automotive aftermarket is developing more quickly than, and in different ways from, its precursor in the US, says Mark McLarty, chairman of Yanjun Auto, which runs northern China’s largest BMW franchise. “They’re younger – they don’t have the brand loyalty, they don’t have the dealership loyalty,” he says of the country’s car buyers.
Everything from finance to insurance to accident repair is different too. A decade into China’s car boom, about four out of five people who buy cars are doing so for the first time. “Seventy-five per cent of our customers are 35 and younger,” says Kirk Cordill, head of BMW Automotive Finance in China. “We’re really having to explain a loan to customers, and explain why it makes sense.” To serve a customer base with no credit histories, the business sometimes does “home checks” to see whether people live where they say they do – something that would be done in the US, for example, only if a car was on the point of being repossessed.
Mr McLarty installed a glass wall at the dealership to allow customers to watch their vehicle being serviced because, he says, “the Chinese do not trust mechanics”. He rent a race track at one Beijing outlet to allow customers to sample the cars’ performance at speeds normally unattainable on the city’s congested roads. In a country where most drivers are new – and accident rates are high – his business also runs its own 24-hour paint and body shop.
中国北方最大的宝马(BMW)特许经销商——燕骏集团(Yanjun Auto)的董事长马凯霆(Mark McLarty)表示，中国汽车售后市场的发展比当年的美国更快，而且有许多方面不同之处。马凯霆谈到中国的购车人时表示：“他们更年轻，没有品牌忠诚度，更没有经销商忠诚度。”
从汽车金融到保险再到事故维修，一切都不一样。中国的汽车繁荣已有十年，但大约五分之四的人还是首次购车。中国宝马汽车金融公司(BMW Automotive Finance)总裁科迪(Kirk Cordill)表示：“我们75%的客户都在35岁或35岁以下。我们确实不得不向客户解释什么是贷款，以及为什么要贷款。”为了向没有任何信用历史的客户群提供服务，公司有时会进行“家访”以确定客户是否住在他们所说的地方——在美国，只有要收回汽车时才会这样做。