DRIVING AND OWNING A CAR IN CHINA

BUYING A CAR IN CHINA

20080313-traffic-driver Beijing Julie Chao.jpg The government began encouraging private car ownership in 1994. Chinese economic policies are designed to nurture domestic automakers and make car ownership accessible to people who half a generation ago thought themselves lucky to afford a bicycle. The Chery QQ, for example, sells for about $4,500. Chinese-made subcompacts sell for about $9,000. One survey found that 96 percent of car owners paid cash for their cars,

A car salesman told the Washington Post, “I can feel it when they come into the shop. The whole family chooses the car together. I can read the eagerness in their faces. They pay attention to every detail of the car. After they take it home, they get up several times every night to see if their cars are okay.”

In 2000, buses, trucks and other commercial vehicles accounted for about three quarters of four-wheel motor vehicle sales because automobiles on the market were too expensive for the majority of Chinese. At that time most cars, SUVs and vans were purchased by work units rather than individuals. Taxicabs alone accounted for one-third of passenger car sales in China.

Large cars have traditionally done well because many of the buyers of cars have been government officials with chauffeurs. They like the comfort and roominess of the big cars and have the money to pay for them. The entrance of individual buyers to the car market is a relatively new phenomena. Their numbers are rising every year and many of them are choosing smaller models. In 2003, 70 percent of the cars bought were private purchases.

China initially restricted auto financing to domestic banks. In 2001, only 19 percent of vehicles were purchased with financing, compared to 70 percent in the United States. The government has encouraged banks to give out loans to boost the automobile industry. In 2003, non-bank institutions were given permission to give out loans. In the mid 2000s, Volkswagen and GM began offering car loans. Soon 30 percent of all car sales are expected to be financed by auto loans.

The annual auto show in Shanghai has become a big deal. It is just as glitzy as the more famous auto shows in the United States and Europe. General Motors used strobe light and hired the entire Shanghai Symphony to introduce its new cars. At the Beijing auto show, models in mini-skirts lean against new red Ferraris and Mercedes rotated on a circular stage. Representatives of second tier Chinese automakers tug on the sleeves of potential buyers like vendors in a busy market.

The is a joke about a peasant who sees a sign for a Volkswagen Santana 2000. He walks into the dealer and offers 2000 yuan ($274) for the car. The dealer tells the peasant that the offer is too low and sends him across the street to dealer with Mercedes 600 on display.

Websites and Resources

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Zhongshan taxi
Good Websites and Sources on Automobiles in China : Chinese Automobile chineseautomobile.com ; China Car Forum Automaker List chinacarforums.com ; China Car Forums chinacarforums.com China Car Times chinacartimes.com ; China Motors. Ru china-motors.ru ; Road Travel: Wikipedia article on China National Highways Wikipedia ; Global Security globalsecurity.org ; Map of China’s Highways maps-of-china.net : Karakoram Highway in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia Joho the Map John the Map ; Photos Karakorum Highway Blog

Driving and Owning a Car: Expat Blog Report on Driving in China expat-blog.com ; Driving in China Report destoop.com ; On the Road China ontheroadinchina.com Wikitravel Article Wikitravel Driving-In.com Driving-In.com ; Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Association for Safe International Road Travel: asirt.org ; Chinese Automobile Association asirt.org

Links in this Website: TRANSPORTATION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; TRAINS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; NEW TIBETAN TRAIN Factsanddetails.com/China ; AUTOMOBILES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DRIVING AND OWNING A CAR IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; ROAD TRAVEL AND BUS ACCIDENTS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; AUTOMOBILE INDUSTRY IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOREIGN CAR COMPANIES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; AIR TRAVEL IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN TRANSPORTATION Factsanddetails.com/China ; KARAKORUM HIGHWAY Factsanddetails.com/China

Middle Class Desire to Buy a Car in China

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Buick LaCrosse
Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: “From one point of view, this can be seen as another milestone in China’s storied economic rise. This year, nearly a third of all Chinese households fit the definition of middle class, with annual incomes of $5,000 to $15,000, and the share will rise to more than 45 percent by 2020, according to Euromonitor International, a business-intelligence firm. Most of them want cars. The government has been obliging. In 2009, in part to combat the global economic collapse, the national government halved the sales tax on the small-engine cars that most first-time buyers choose, and it spent billions on subsidies for rural car purchases and upgrades to new vehicles. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, December 22, 2010]

“Fifteen years ago, hardly anyone could afford a car. Today, everyone can,” said Wang Li Mei, secretary general of the China Road Transport Association. “History just evolved in its own way. Each day we’re getting more cars, and each week we’re building more roads.”

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “It was only after the Beijing municipal government last month announced regulations to severely limit the number of automobiles in Beijing that Guo Jian, a burly 38-year-old salesman of eyeglass frames, decided that he really did need a car. No matter that he doesn't know how to drive. Guo bicycled over to the motor vehicle bureau to enter a newly instituted lottery for a coveted Beijing license plate. If he succeeds in getting one of the 20,000 plates to be issued this month, he'll plunk down about $30,000 “ that would be in cash, he says with an immodest grin---to buy the Toyota Camry he's been eyeing.” "I've been getting to that stage in life where I want to have a car. I was thinking about it for a couple of years, but I'll admit---when they changed the law, that was what got me to pull the trigger," Guo told the Los Angeles Times. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2011]

More than ever, Beijingers want their own set of wheels---that would be four wheels, please---and newly imposed restrictions on car ownership have only further whetted their appetites. In one 24-hour period just before the stricter regulations took effect, up to 160,000 cars were sold, many of them to people who didn't have driver's licenses.” "It has become a mania of sorts," said Jia Xinguang, an independent automobile industry analyst based in Beijing. "All Chinese admire the American way of life, and just like Americans, they feel they want their house as well as their own car." [Ibid]

“As a result, new cars clog Beijing streets, many of them cheap, Chinese-made mini-cars that come in eye-catching shades such as magenta, lime green and persimmon. There's even a black-and-white-model called the panda (the big, round headlights suggest China's favorite endangered species) along with a luxurious assortment of new-model BMWs, Mercedeses and Audis.” "Face it, a car is a status symbol. It shows you're important," said Xin Haibo, a sharply dressed young man in angular eyeglasses and a dashing red scarf.

"Living standards are improving all the time so more and more people can afford cars. In the United States, I hear some families have three or four cars. We'll be happy to have one," said a 59-year-old retired electric company employee. He intends to buy his first car---a Buick... Where exactly he'll go with it, Dai doesn't know. Moreover, he acknowledges, traffic is so bad, he can get around more quickly by subway. "Maybe we'll just take a short trip outside the city for the weekend," he said.

Lottery for New Cars in Beijing

Starting in January 2011, Beijing capped it new small passenger vehicle quota at 20,000 a month as part of the city’s effort to tackle its traffic problem. Under the rules only Beijing residents and members of the police and military are allowed to purchase vehicles. Government agencies will not be allowed to buy vehicles for five years.

To buy a new car in Beijing people must first enter a lottery for a new license plate. At the last count in March 2012, about 970,000 Beijing residents had signed up for one of the 20,282 license plates available for the month. The Global Times newspaper put the odds of getting a license plate at 1 in 47.9. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Under pressure to fix the problem, the government is now limiting the number of new license plates in Beijing to 240,000 per year---about one-third of the number of plates issued in 2010---to be awarded through the lottery system. Only long-term Beijing residents may register cars in the city, and cars with out-of-town plates can't enter, a measure as drastic as if New York banned the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.

Demand under the new lottery system is even more keen. For the first allotment of 20,000 license plates to be handed out this month, there are 210,178 applications, according to the government.

Lottery Accelerates Car Mania in Beijing

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Chery Fulwin
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “But even well before the new restrictions, the Beijing car craze was moving full speed ahead. The new rules were announced Dec. 23 at a 3 p.m. news conference and took effect at midnight. That left just nine hours for people to stampede to the automobile showrooms.”

A blogger for a popular forum on the Web portal Sohu.com recalls viewing the news conference live online; and by 3:30 p.m. starting to call for advice on how to buy a car. As soon as she got off work, she asked a colleague to drive her to a dealership. At 9:38 p.m., she had the keys to a Peugeot 307 after using her credit card to pay the $19,000 price in full. Even as she left the shop at 10:30 p.m., others were streaming in to buy before the deadline.

Seeing it as their last chance to own a car, some people took desperate measures. At a BMW showroom, according to a report in the Xinmin Weekly, a buyer used a key to scratch a brand-new car and then announced, "No one wants this car anymore, right? Then I'll take it!" In December 2010, a local paper reported that one Beijing auto shopper, in heated competition for a particular car, smashed its windshield and declared: “This car is damaged. Let’s see who wants it now.” After he paid a penalty of $300, the car was his. Elsewhere, competing buyers bid up the price of an Audi sport utility vehicle by about $10,500 before the winner drove away with his prize.

You Zongyun, a Honda dealer, boasted of having "three months of sales in the month of December alone." He said November was almost as strong because "people had heard the rumors, so even before they got confirmation, there was a rush to buy." All in all, reports the authoritative Web site auto.sohu, Beijingers bought 95,100 vehicles in November---a record and a third more than in the previous month. In one week alone, they bought 30,000.

Waiting Months for a New Car in China

Reporting from Guangzhou Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times: “Li Bo, a 28-year-old lawyer, was one of three friends who put down deposits of 50,000 renminbi, or $7,500, in May 2010 at a car dealership to each buy a popular model, the Audi Q5, which sells for the equivalent of $72,000, including taxes, in China. Mr. Li and one friend are still waiting for their cars [seven months later]; the other paid an additional 38,000 renminbi, or $5,700, to the dealership and got his Q5 within a week, Mr. Li said.” “We’re very upset,” Mr. Li said. “There are just too many people ordering.” [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, December 29, 2010]

Automakers have been struggling for years to keep up with demand in China, as sales have climbed at a pace never seen in a major auto market.

Car Ownership in China

There were 11,500,000 privately owned cars in China in 2007.

Chinese love their cars and the freedom and opportunities they gives them. A website designer told the Washington Post, “I’ve been to Sichuan, Shandong and Jilin Province, and I plan to spend Chinese New Year driving to Yunnan. I really like what the car brings to my life---convenience, freedom, flexibility...I can’t imagine life without it.”

Car ownership was not allowed until 1994. Before then only top government agencies and Communist party officials were allowed to have cars. In 1995, about 250,000 people owned cars in China. In 1998 about 1 million people did. In 1985, only 60 people in Beijing owned private cars. Cars were so rare that one car---a black limousine---was parked in front of the Forbidden City so that newlywed couples could be photographed next to it.

Initially many people bought cars for face, status and to show off. These days many buy them for fun. Owning and driving a car are still big status symbols in China. Commuters proudly drive their vehicles to work from their suburban homes. One Chinese car owner said: "the majority of people in China like cars and dream of having their own." Glossy car magazines such as Auto Fan and Newest Famous Racing Cars dominate some newsstands.

Through the 1990s ownership remained restricted to a wealthy elite. Black Volkswagen Santanas have traditionally been the preferred vehicle of low-level Communist officials, with black Audis and Buicks with tinted windows being the vehicles of choice among high level officials. Only recently have middle class Chinese been able to afford cars. Many middle class people who purchases cars chose buying a car over buying a house.

A cheap Chinese-made car takes up 140 percent of the buyers’ annual income, compared with 30 to 40 percent in the United States. Imported cars are beyond the reach of ven the upper middle class. Taxes and tariffs add about 50 percent to the value of Mercedes and BMWs. Hummers cost about $200,000 in China.

Getting a License Plate and Registering a Car

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BYD hybrid van
To own a car in China one needs a license plate. The Shanghai license fee was $7,524 in 2010. To get a license plate in Shanghai one needs to bid in a fiercely competitive auction with secret bids. To sign up for the auction one has to wait in a line that snakes for several city blocks outside of office that gives out the licenses. In 2002, only 2,350 licenses were given out in Shanghai every month. By 2005, around 14,000 were given out every month. People who bid too low have to try again next month. The process was made difficult on purpose: to limit the number of cars on the road.

Describing the scene at the licence plate office, Wang Tung wrote in the Washington Post, “In the final hour of bidding there is a mad rush to get in the door. Participants claw their way inside the auction hall to one or two dozen dilapidated computer terminals where they must enter their registration number, password and bidding number.”

“Within seconds after the door flew open....the chamber was a sweltering mosh pit, thronged by red-faced men and women clutching onionskin registration forms by the fistful. Several scuffles required auction officials to act as referees...The computers were switched off at 3 p.m. The bidding stopped, dealers and customer shuffled out into the lobby to smoke and wait... After a while the officials announced the minimum bid. Those who did over that amount got licences. Those that bid under that amount didn’t get one.”

The government has raised fees for car registration every year, doubling them between 2000 to 2005 to $4,600 per vehicle---more than twice they city’s average per capita income---but still the cars keep coming. Many Shanghaiese get around the registration fees by illegally registering their cars in other cities where the fees are much lower.

The government is reluctant to do too much to slow car ownership out of fear of slowing economic growth and alienating the middle class.

Problems of Car Ownership in China

People who purchases a car generally pay more than 30 percent over the sticker price after they are through paying taxes, fees, maintenance, parking, tolls, gasoline and insurance. For many urban people cabs and bicycles are much more cost efficient and practical forms of transportation. Many car owners still ride their bicycles to work and use their cars on their days off to visit places out of town and to carry heavy items such as rice, coal and flour.

Owning a car in China entails a lot of extra bureaucratic headaches. After purchasing a car in Changsa, for example, motorists have to make 15 trips to five different offices to get all the paperwork done, and pay $550 for taxes and fees, $210 for a year's parking, and somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 a month for gasoline and traffic ticket fines.

Most people who own cars lived in urban areas where traffic is a problem and parking is limited. Most Chinese cities were built for bicycles not automobiles. Unlike American cities, Chinese cities have virtually no parking spaces and no parking garages. Most neighborhood streets and alleys are barely wide enough for one car. Millions of bicycle riders keep motor vehicles moving at a slow pace, and the main thoroughfares generally aren't wide to accommodate normal traffic.

Guangzhou and Cars

With severe restrictions being placed on vehicles in Beijing and Shanghai, Guangzhou in southeastern China has the potential to become the country’s largest single market in 2011. With Toyota, Honda and Nissan all operating joint ventures in the city, Guangzhou has nearly caught up with Shanghai as the largest car manufacturing hub in China. Severe traffic is not yet a crippling problem in Guangzhou. City leaders are leery of discouraging car sales. “At the current time, Guangzhou does not have plans to follow Beijing’s new limit on the issuance of car license plates in 2011,” Chen Haotian, a vice director of the city’s powerful Development and Reform Commission, told the New York Times. “Our city has a very good subway system, which should help to alleviate big traffic jams.” [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, December 29, 2010]

Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times: “Guangzhou had severe traffic jams a decade ago, but moved more quickly than Beijing to build a subway network that opens 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, of new lines each year. Traffic flows more smoothly in the city than in Beijing, although Guangzhou still had to impose restrictions on who could drive, based on license plate numbers, during the Asian Games.”

Guangzhou imposed odd-even license plate rules to cut car usage during the Asian Games in 2010 as Beijing did when it hosted the Olympics in 2008. The rules were kept in place after the Asia Games to reduce air pollution.

Driving in China

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On driving in China, David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “While inexperience is certainly a factor, Chinese motorists must negotiate more hazards than their counterparts in the industrialized world. Many pedestrians still behave as if the auto revolution in China never happened---wandering aimlessly into crosswalks, darting across eight-lane highways and loitering in traffic medians. Riders of motorcycles and bicycles often ignore traffic lights and weave in and out of traffic. Vehicle drivers are just as reckless. Motorists who miss an exit often throw their cars into reverse and back up---even on the freeway. Many refuse to stop or yield when making a right turn, forcing cars and people out of the way. Drivers routinely barrel down the wrong side of the street. [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2011]

“Courteous driving is seldom rewarded. Stop at a zebra crossing for pedestrians and you could wait endlessly for the sea of people to part. Experts say a culture of caution is still years away. Although the Chinese can spend hundreds of dollars on driving school and must pass an exhaustive exam, many soon abandon any good habits they've learned because traffic rules are rarely enforced.”

Chinese drivers have many bad habits, including grinding gears, accelerating too fast, driving too fast and recklessly, turning suddenly without signaling, speeding through intersections without slowing down, and steering all over the road. Some Chinese drivers don't yield to pedestrians, don't yield to ambulances, park in such a way as to block traffic, oblivious the fact they are in other people's way. They drive slow in situations when they should be driving fast and drive fast when they should be driving slow. Few people wear their seatbelts. Kids often run out in the street without looking where they are going.

Some Chinese drivers are very pushy, aggressive, inconsiderate and don't watch where they are going. After observing a van roar through a red light with its horn blaring, one Hong Kong trucker told the Wall Street Journal, "Coming from Hong Kong, you'd expect him to stop, if not for the red light then certainly for a truck 20 times its size. But here, Hong Kong logic does not apply." About 37 percent of drivers on the road in China didn’t know how to driver three years ago,

To be a good driver in China one has to be brave. On rural roads, heavy trucks, buses and cars race towards oncoming traffic, forcing other vehicles onto the shoulders as they pass slower vehicles. If a car breaks down because the fuel line is clogged many Chinese will simply stick the fuel line in their mouth and suck out the gasoline-soaked clog and then spit fuel into the carburetor. When the writer Peter Hessler observed a Sichuanese driver do this and light a cigarette afterwards he sighed with relief when the driver didn't explode.

In the cities the streets are clogged with bicycles, motorbikes, cars, buses and carts. In heavy traffic it is not uncommon for impatient motorists to pull into a bicycle lane to make progress forward. Pedestrians are notorious for jaywalking disobeying walk signals. At intersections traffic officers sit in booths and switch the traffic lights by hand and shout insults at offenders out the window. In Shanghai, 2,000 unemployed people were hired to keep pedestrians in line at major intersections.

Book: Peter Hessler’s third China book Country Driving

Chinese Driving Customs

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Car culture is new to Chinese. The Chinese have not grown up with cars as many American, Japanese and Europeans have. They are not used to the idea of taking long car trips and do a lot of dumb things. A surprisingly number of Chinese lock their keys in their cars and forget to put gasoline in their tanks. Students at driving school have to be taught how hold the steering wheel.

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, China “is a nation of new drivers, and the transition has been so rapid that many road patterns come directly from pedestrian life---people drive like they walk. They like to move in packs, and they tailgate whenever possible. They rarely use their turn signals. If they miss an exit on a highway, they simply pull onto the shoulder, shift in reverse, and get it right the second time. After years of long queues, Chinese people have learned to be ruthless about cutting in line, an instinct that is disastrous in traffic jams.”

“Drivers rarely check their rearview mirrors, perhaps because they never use such an instrument when they travel on foot or on bicycle. Windshield wipers are considered a distraction. So are headlights. In fact the use of headlights was banned in Beijing until the mid-eighties, when China officials began going overseas.”

“People honk constantly...In a sense honking is as complicated as the language. Spoken Chinese is tonal...Similarly, a Chinese horn is capable of at least ten distinct meanings. A solid hooooonnnnkkk is intended to attract attention. A double sound---hooooonnkkk hoooonnnnkk---indicates irritation....There’s the stuttering, staggering hnkhnk hnk hnk hnk that represents pure panic. There’s the afterthought honk---the one that rookie drivers make if they are too slow to hit the button before a situation resolves itself.

Rental cars are routinely returned with dented bodies and wrecked bumpers. The rental. agencies usually say no problem...they have insurance. One just has to write an accident report and put a chop on it.

Dogs are not so used to vehicles and they are often hit and killed on the road. One question that many Chinese ask when someone tells them they hit a dog is, “Did you eat it? Sometimes when drivers hit a big dog they throw it in the trunk and cook it at home.

Many drivers wear white, cotton driving gloves. The attendants in Chinese gas stations are often women who give out such gloves free with a full tank of gas.

To rent a Jetta in China cost about $25 a day. An enormous amount of paper work is required that includes a lengthy inspection of the car to make a note of all dents and scratches on the car and marking them n a diagram. The tank is often less than half full when the driver pucks up the car and the driver required to return the car with about the same amount of fuel.

Cars are seen as social rather than isolating vehicles. Many Chinese belong to car clubs and a car is seen as a way to meet up with old friends that would be inaccessible without one.

Enthusiasm for driving is reflected in the popularity of “self-driving” vacations and drive-thru eateries. The number of McDonald’s with drive-thrus increased from 1 in 2005 to 115 in 2008.

Drivers can compete in unofficial road races in the suburbs that attract hundreds of spectators.

Driving in Shanghai

On driving in Shanghai, Andrew Field wrote in his blog Squarespace: “It did not take long to accustom myself to the wide range of vehicular, cycle, and pedestrian traffic and the seemingly random ways that people navigated city streets...I quickly became used to the occasional brushups with other cars, usually the fault of a new driver. One time, a woman plowed into my Chevy from the right lane as if she had completely failed to notice its existence on the road. I became well acquainted with our insurance man, Gu, who miraculously appeared and whisked the car away to make the necessary repairs, returning it usually in around three days. I eventually gave up on trying to fix every scrape that appeared on the car.” [Source: Andrew Field, Squarespace, blog, July 31, 2010]

“In the spring of 2009, I even made a long journey southward to Ningbo, Hangzhou, and Thousand Island Lake with a few friends. Once out of the city I found that driving was both more simple and joyful on the new and immaculate highway system of Zhejiang Province, and I relished the experience of crossing one of the world’s longest ocean bridges, the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, on the way from Shanghai to Ningbo. It was quite an experience to be driving over the waters of the bay without seeing land for several kilometers in either direction, and from the perspective of the road, it was fascinating to witness the incredibly rapid development of one of China’s most economically developed provinces.”

On drivers in Shanghai, Field wrote: “At times it seems to be an all out battle for supremacy over the road with no quarter given. The "me first" mentality is very strong when it comes to driving etiquette or lack thereof. This in turn leads to far more accidents, which cause traffic delays ratcheting up levels of anxiety, leading to more fender-benders and so on in a vicious cycle. And people end up spending more time and money on the road and getting their cars fixed. But it is all worthwhile if one can shave that second off the road trip by cutting in front of another vehicle. This used to be true of lines here in China as well, such as the queues formed at a bank or a ticket counter. People have become far more polite about lining up since I first arrived in China in the 1980s. I suspect that over time, people in Shanghai will develop a more sophisticated sense of etiquette when it comes to driving. But who knows? Only time will tell."

Traffic Violations

Jaywalking is a common and dangerous practice in China. Pedestrians often don’t look where they are going and drivers are reluctant to stop for them.

In an effort to crack down on jaywalking in Shanghai, police there plan to post photos and videos of jaywalkers and problem cyclists and moped drivers in newspapers and on television to shame them pout of breaking traffic rules. Legal activists condemn the idea of using public humiliation as too severe a punishment for jaywalking and warned of defamation lawsuits against the police.

Police have found that giving speeding tickets is an easy way to make money. Some police who have stake in ticket profits have purchased and set up cameras in places where the posted speed limit suddenly drops without warning. The writer Peter Hessler said he got three $20 speeding tickets each time he took a road trip in the factory town area of Zhejiang Province, with the fines tacked onto his rental car bill.

New paved roads in the countryside make it easier for farmers to get their crops to markets and for rural kids to get to secondary schools.

Driving School in China

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To get a license potential drivers must have at least 58 hours of instruction in a certified course that costs around $300 to $500, a considerable sum in China. The fee covers three weeks of classroom sessions, a month of behind-the-wheel training and three separate road tests. Explaining one reason for the rigorous testing procedure one inspector told the Los Angeles Times, "In China we have too many people. Too many drivers. We cannot let everybody on the road."

The diving instructors often have peculiar ideas. Hessler heard about one instructor that insisted his students start off in second gear. Another didn’t like his students to use their turn signals because they distracted other drivers. Another sat in the passenger seat and adjusted the rear view mirror so it faced him.

Most driving schools advance students through three stages: the parking range, the driving range and the road. On the first days students are generally shown where the engine, battery and radiator are and practice screwing and unscrewing the gas cap.

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, Student drivers “had been instructed to honk whenever they pulled out, or made a turn, or encountered anything in the road. They honked at cars, tractors, and donkey carts. They honked at every single pedestrian. Sometimes they passed another car from a driving school, and then both vehicles honked happily as if greeting an old friend. At noon the class had lunch at a local restaurant, where everybody drank beer, including the coach, and then they continued driving. One student told me that a day earlier they got so drunk that they had to cancel the afternoon class.”

When foreigners say to Hessler that he is crazy for driving in China he tells them, “I can’t believe you get into cabs and buses driven by graduates of Chinese driving courses.”

Driver's License

Many people who go through all this and pass the driving test still can't drive because they can not get licenses for their cars or can not afford a car. Many people never even attend driving school or take a driving test. They simply buy their driver’s licenses.

In Shanghai, only about 80,000 of the 200,000 people that get a driver’s licence every year can actually buy a car. One 28-year-old kindergarten teacher told the Los Angeles Times, “My dream is a small car, maybe the Chinese-made QQ or the Volkswagen Polo, because they are so cute and relatively more affordable. But everything is too expensive. For now I have no chance at all to practice driving.”

May people obtain their driver license on the Internet.

On driving with a new driver Hessler wrote, “Twice I had to yell to keep him from passing on blind turns; another time, I grabbed the wheel to prevent him from veering into a car. He never checked the rear view mirror, he honked at everything that moved. The absolute lack of turn signaling was the least of our problems. He came within inches of hitting a parked tractor and he almost nailed a cement wall.”

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Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist

Chinese Driving Tests

Prospective drivers in Beijing are required to pass a medical check up, take a written exam, complete a technical course and pass two driving tests. Foreigners who want a Chinese licence have t pass a special foreigners test, which often involved nothing more than starting a car, driving 50 meter on a road with no traffic, and pulling over and turning off the car. [Source: Peter Hessler, the New Yorker]

The driving tests in China can be very hard and the criteria for getting a license can be quite arbitrary. In Shanghai, people who are too short, color-blind, suffer for nervousness or high blood-pressure, have trouble jumping are routinely denied the privilege to drive. Some are rejected because their thumb is not the right shape, or they are missing a finger or they can’t hear well in one ear. One driver who was not allowed to take a driving test because she was less than five feet told the Los Angeles Times, "All I want to do is drive a small car, not a big truck. I had no idea they had this rule."

The Shanghai driving test includes lifting weights to show hand strength, flexing fingers and jumping to show dexterity, having one’s blood pressure checked, pushing buttons with one’s hands and feet to check responses to visual and auditory stimuli and placing one’s head in a dark closet with a blinding headlight to see how well one’s vision adjusts to light.

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The following are some questions that Hessler noted from the driving test in Beijing .

During the evening, a driver should:
a) turn on the brights
b) turn on the normal lights
c) turn off the lights

When overtaking another car, a driver should:
a) pass on the left
b) pass on the right
c) pass wherever, depending on the situation

When driving through a residential area, you should:
a) honk like normal
b) honk more than normal in order to alert residents
c) avoid honking, in order to avoid disturbing residents [Source: Peter Hessler The New Yorker]

In drivers education students learn various tasks and do them over and over. There is little preparation for actual city driving. One of the most difficult parts of the driver’s test is the single plank bridge tests, which simulates crossing a bridge in which there are only places for the tires to go.

If your car breaks down atop the tracks of a railroad, you should: a) abandon it there; 2) find some way to move it immediately; or c) leave it there temporarily until you can get somebody to repair it.”

When trying to save a person who is on fire, the wrong response is: A. Use sand to cover him. B. Try to extinguish the fire on his clothing as quickly as possible. C. Spray cold water on him.D. Take off his burning clothes. (Answer: A)

Driving Test for Foreigners in China

Questions on driving tests for foreigners in China include: ) If you have to suddenly jump out of an overturning vehicle, in which direction do you jump? And once you hit the ground, what’s the best way to roll? 2) When your car is suddenly plunging into water, what’s the best way to escape? Do you immediately open the door and jump out? Wait until the car hits the water and then open the doors? Stay inside and call for help? Or use your feet to smash the windshield? [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, April 2, 2012]

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post: “The computerized test, available in English, Arabic, French and several other languages to foreign residents who want to obtain a Chinese driver’s license, gives 100 randomly generated questions from a seemingly endless list. The topics include arcane traffic signs, police hand signals, and the amounts of various fines and penalties. To pass the test, a would-be driver needs to answer at least 90 of the 100 questions correctly, and many test-takers fail on the first few attempts. [Ibid]

“It’s a test that assumes that the motorist might encounter pretty much anything on China’s increasingly clogged and lethal roads, and that includes head-on collisions, tire blowouts and treating injured and bleeding passengers at the scene of a wreck. There are questions on the proper way to carry an injured person in a coma (sideways, head down), the best way to stanch the bleeding from a major artery and how to put out a passenger on fire (hint: Do not throw sand on the victim). [Ibid]

“And there’s an array of questions about mind-boggling penalties for all sorts of infractions, many of which seem to include fleeing the scene of various vehicular crimes---suggesting that the transport control department of the Public Security Bureau has pretty much seen it all. For example, causing a minor traffic accident and running away could get you less than 15 days in jail. But running away after causing serious injury or major property damage will get you three years behind bars. Running away after causing a traffic death brings a prison term of seven to 15 years. [Ibid]

“There are, for example, questions about what to do when encountering an old man riding a bicycle on the road, a bike rider coming in the opposite direction, a blind man walking down the road or a drunk pedestrian. There are also several animal-related questions: what to do when encountering a flock of sheep (“drive slowly and use the vehicle to scare away the flock”) and someone herding animals (reduce speed, keep a safe distance). However, when discovering animals “cutting in on the road,” the correct response is to “voluntarily reduce speed, or stop to yield.” [Ibid]

Peter Hessler's Country Driving

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On Peter Hessler's Country Driving Andrew Field wrote in his blog Squarespace: “Country Driving is about Peter Hessler’s various experiences in China since the early 2000s, loosely organized around the subject of driving. The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, he describes his experiences driving out to remote areas of western China to research an article on the Great Wall for the National Geographic Magazine. The second section focuses on the village of Sancha, located near the Great Wall north of Beijing, where Peter and a friend rented a house that served as a weekend writing retreat. In the third section, he travels to a factory town in Zhejiang, where he becomes friendly with the bosses and workers of a bra ring factory.” [Source: Andrew Field, Squarespace, blog, July 31, 2010]

Throughout the book we learn plenty about what it is like to drive in this country and how rapidly the road and highway system is developing and how that in turn is changing the communities that become part of the national road network...Personally I feel that this is his best book yet....Book three reveals a more modest and focused Peter Hessler, more confident of his skills in the language and culture, but less prone to overgeneralizations about the people and country. At least, one feels that the general statements he does make about China are hard earned, if not always on the mark. Yet overall what I felt about this book was that it was a far deeper and more nuanced portrayal of China than his earlier books, not to mention those published by a myriad of China heads today. The main reason is that Peter is astonishingly good at bringing us into the intimate lives of a wide range of people. He has a real knack for befriending people and drawing out their most personal stories, a quality that was evident in his first two books, but not to the degree we find in his third.

In this respect, I found his second section, on the village in Sancha, to be among his best writing on China yet. Over a span of several years, he befriends one of the characters in the village and becomes a surrogate caretaker of his son, driving him to school and one time to the hospital in an incident where his kindly intervention was obviously of great benefit to the boy and his family. ..Peter’s intimate portrayal of the people of Sancha and their transformations over the years was one of the best accounts I’ve read of village life in China in recent years.

Image Sources: 1) University of Washington; 2, 9, 10) Beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/; 3, 5 ) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 4) Mongabey ; 6) CIA; 7) Gary Braasch; 8) Julie Chao http://juliechao.com/pix-china.html ; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: photo.huanqiu.com http://photo.huanqiu.com/creativity/unlimited/2010-11/1254288.html ' Amazon; Wiki Commons, Asia Obscura http://asiaobscura.com/ ;

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2012

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