CARS WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS: Small cars, like Brilliance's Cross pictured, now make up some 70 percent of Chinese vehicle purchases thanks to government tax breaks on the fuel efficient autos. But their sheer number--the Chinese now own some 200 million vehicles--means ever-increasing oil dependence. Image: © Elizabeth Dorn
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SHENYANG—Rows of new white minibuses marshal at the entrance to Brilliance Auto's sprawling complex on the outskirts of this industrial city of 4.2 million people in northeastern China. The complex includes assembly shops, dormitories and corporate headquarters, in addition to temporary parking for the company's products. In one cavernous, dimly lit shop, workers in tan overalls with blue highlights repeat over and over the same basic assembly task as a conveyor belt slowly but steadily carries the skeletons of future minibuses from station to station at the pace of the slowest worker. The air is filled with brief blasts of whirring power tools and the smell of ozone and rubber. Everywhere is the logo of Brilliance, a blocky knock-off of the oval symbol of the world's largest automaker Toyota.
The logo is perhaps an homage to the mammoth company whose partnership with Brilliance has helped it to shine, along with additional help from BMW. The Chinese state-owned enterprise now sells some 80,000 "JinBei" and "Granse" minibuses a year—after assimilating Toyota's "Hiace" and "Granvia" minibus models during a previous joint venture, or what the Chinese call technology "digestion."
"At the beginning, we had no ability to develop our own vehicles," says Wang Shiping, Brilliance's vice president of strategy, via a translator. "Now we just purchase engines from Toyota. We have two engine plants but it's the customer's choice: if they like Toyota engines we provide that. If they like domestic we have that."
Much like the U.S. or neighbors Japan and South Korea, China has made automobile manufacturing a focus of its development efforts—naming it a "national pillar industry" in 1994. Brilliance's parent company—Huachen—employs some 35,000 people. And much like Henry Ford introduced an economic model that worked for America—building cars that his workers could afford on the salaries he paid them—the Chinese public has responded, purchasing roughly 14 million vehicles in 2010 and lifting the global fortunes of automakers both domestic and foreign, such as GM, which, for the first time in 2009, sold more cars in China than in the U.S.
At the same time, China has invested heavily in infrastructure to make the country car-friendly: roads, bridges, tunnels—an orgy of construction that happens to double as a stimulus plan. A pristine four-lane toll highway leads out of this northeastern city, empty except for a few trucks and official convoys speeding past in their specially licensed black sedans. But within a few years, the lanes will be crowded with cars and the next cycle of road-building will begin. Beijing started its second ring road in the 1980s and completed its sixth—stretching 187 kilometers around the sprawling capital—in 2009.
Predictable results have followed: traffic jams that stretch for kilometers, sprawling suburbia and rising fuel prices. The vice mayor of Beijing was recently "exiled" to work in Xinjiang province after a debacle of some 30,000 vehicles being registered in a few weeks in December in anticipation of a curb on new auto registry. The Beijing municipal government duly laid out its plan on December 13 to combat the capital's roughly 4.8 million vehicles that have turned the city's roads into sinuous parking lots, including encouraging the use of the new subway system and restricting new vehicle registries to just 240,000 in total next year, roughly one-third of 2010's total. Plus, a haze covers the cities of China—a combination of the smoke of a million coal fires and all the vehicles' exhaust obscuring the skyline with smog's airlight, turning a Beijing sunrise from rosy to peach.