15
Jan
2013

Motorists continue to grow in number but not in ability

Owning a car in China is a necessity to support ones status, people see you in a car so the bigger and more famous as a brand name, the better. The middle classes want to demonstrate a belonging to the elite set, and although they may live in a modest (yet relatively expensive) home, the car is the symbol that epitomises current Chinese culture. Going out for dinner in your very nice new (because old anything is not good) car, will show your friends, peers and business associates that you are  making progress up the social ladder.

Visit a car dealership over a weekend, at least those belonging to brands like Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover, Cadillac etc, and the place will be heaving with couples of all ages, some with young children in tow, all desperate to part with very large sums of money to buy the badge of success. This emblem will be taken to a hand car wash each weekend, and the dealers when the vehicle is due to be serviced, but other than filling the tank, none of these motorists will ever look at the engine, check the tyres or the oil because 1/ they don’t know how to, and 2/ its below their status to do so. Coming from a country where we, or at least older people like me were brought up to service their own cars, and even repair them, where driving for me at least is a joy and fun, this is all very odd.

However, for the mass market car brands, and their luxury cousins, China is a land of plenty; people lining up to buy en-masse, and putting their motoring future in the hands of the manufacturer. The culture of keeping up with others and where possible trying to out perform them has led to dealerships opening on a daily basis, and manufacturers creating new models with Chinese peculiarities such as extended wheelbases even in the compact range, to deliver the impact of status when seen by others. Unlike most countries and in particular my own, arriving at a business meeting with a client in a very expensive car is a faux pas as they will get the impression that I am earning too much money from them, yet here, its essential that they know you drove to the meeting, and the brand and model of the car you arrived in.

As a driver in Shanghai, I have adopted a driving technique that is a blend of east and west, and the use of colourful verbiage which I hurl at the very inexperienced and at times, incompetent Chinese drivers who frustrate and bemuse me routinely. The sheer volume of traffic can make driving conditions incredibly slow, but perhaps the most frustrating driving technique that is encountered, and in fact that I adopt when required is the one of ‘not looking before making a move because that would mean I had responsibility and may have to look at others‘. Its a cultural habit that can be seen in other walks of life, but on the road, it amazes me that there are not more accidents. Having said that, the heavy traffic keeps speeds low, which helps indirectly. When speeds pick up, then the game changes, and all these people who were desperate to gain one place in a line and force their way in all become snails, and drive without looking around them or anticipating the movement of others; but why would they!

So the car market and driving in China don’t follow the rules of elsewhere on the globe much like many other things. The government has tried to slow the purchase of vehicles by restricting the availability of license plates, but if you want to get on in China, the ethos of ‘get a car’ still applies, and will continue to do so until the roads are completely snarled up and someone in authority one day can’t get to a meeting because of the bad traffic!

Until that time, I shall continue to enjoy my driving in China in a weird sort of way; you’ll spot me as the foreigner with blue smoke coming out of his ears!

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