I am in a taxi, stuck in a big traffic jam. I am on my way to Auto China, 2008, and we are edging our way along ring road 3, about to join the airport expressway going to the newly opened China International Exhibition Centre, where this event is held. There are six ring roads in Beijing, and except for ring road 1, which is a track round the Forbidden City, they are all four lane motorways.
Most of the time you are as likely to be stationary, rather than moving.
When you consider that private ownership of cars was only sanctioned in 1980, Beijing has now joined that super league of gridlocked cities such as Dubai, Sao Paulo and Bangkok, in record time. Beijing could soon become the city with more cars than any other on the planet. This year alone the auto industry expects to sell nine million cars in China, so you can start to understand why this event is taken very seriously indeed, by sellers and buyers in equal measure.
While car sales in the West are currently suppressed there is only one word for the Chinese car market, growth. This is currently running at around 25%. When you consider that 90% of families in the West own a car and in China it is a mere 6%, you will understand why the motor industry thinks that China will rescue it from a down turn.
The Chinese do not just love cars, they worship them. In the section where luxury brands display their latest models, the stands are mobbed. In this section you are not allowed to come up to the cars unless you look like a potential customer. But everyone gawps and takes photos, happy to have seen a real Rolls Royce or a Porsche.
Almost everything we buy in the West is now made in China, with the big exception of cars. But the Chinese are trying to catch up. There were over twenty Chinese car manufacturers at the show, Chery being the top of the league. This firm exports more cars than any other Chinese company. However, their main export markets are the ex Russian countries of Eastern Europe, and South America. They do not sell in Europe or the USA, probably because they would not meet the safety regulations.
Chery also make the cheapest car in China, the QQ. Sadly this was not on display because, as I was told “ everyone knows it.” This sells for roughly $4,000.
Taking photographs of the cars is the way in which the Chinese define their visit to the show. This process is all helped along by a lavish sprinkling of car girls. Such is the importance of the girls’ contribution, there are competitions for the best girl in each show hall. Car brochures abound, and are picked up enthusiastically. Sometimes a queue will form for these, which will make the queue escalate; no-one wants to be outdone.
As a British citizen I took particular delight in encountering the Roewe stand. Roewe is the name given to the newly-launched Rover group that was bought by the Chinese a few years back. They took the brand, brought all the equipment over from Longbridge and have re-jigged the car for the Chinese market. The marketing is re-assuringly British. Britain now has no major car manufacturer at all. Such is the dynamic of the new world order, which like so much of life is defined by our love of cars.