What's the use of a car capital if you can't move?
The mainland's economic growth rates in the midst of the global financial crisis are impressive, but its figures for vehicle sales are extraordinary. The number of cars sold in the first half of this year was up 19.5 per cent over the same period last year, forcing a hasty revision of yearly growth projections by some analysts to as much as 27 per cent. If that comes to pass, more than 10 million vehicles will be sold this year and the nation would overtake the US to become the world's biggest vehicle market six years earlier than expected. In 2007, China accelerated past Japan as the second-ranked market. That so many on the mainland are quickly gaining travel independence is an economic and social triumph, although they must keep firmly in mind that gaining the keys to the highway has inherent drawbacks and risks.
Those challenges are obvious when visiting mainland cities: the streets are often gridlocked and a pall of smog hangs overhead. The former is debilitating to a community's effective functioning and the latter a health hazard and contributor to climate change. These are only the most visible signs of embracing the car, though; as nations which so eagerly got behind the wheel in decades past can attest, they can lead to the decline of public transport systems, a dependence on oil, suburban sprawl and a marked change in lifestyles. These are issues that have to be promptly considered to prevent the mistakes made elsewhere.
Taking the time to review and plan is difficult when the good times are rolling. Government subsidies to stimulate the economy mean vehicles are more affordable than ever. The measures have prompted a record surge since March. Manufacturer after manufacturer - China has about 100 - is showing double-digit sales growth. General Motors, the largest overseas carmaker in the country, expects next week to announce a 70 per cent increase in sales this month over June. Such data is in sharp contrast to the figures in the US and Japan, where all but a few carmakers are reporting decades-low sales. In the US, first-half sales were down 35 per cent year on year. Two of its three biggest manufacturers - GM and Chrysler - have filed for bankruptcy protection and been bailed out by the US government. China is the only bright spot for the world's carmakers.
The rise has not been accidental. In 1994, the government put the mainland firmly on the road to becoming a car-builder, targeting a tripling of output by 2000 and a reduction in imports. Foreign producers were wooed and lured into joint ventures. Sales passed the one-million mark in 2002. Carmaking is a sure-fire way of boosting industrial growth and creating jobs. It necessitates design, metal fabrication, parts manufacture and the development of rubber and oil processing plants. Sales and repair networks are created. The industry has been a key factor in the mainland's strong growth.
Clearly this industry is much more than an engine of economic growth. For developing nations, car ownership is a symbol of modernity. It brings mobility and independence. But as traffic-choked cities all over the world have shown, cars can be built much faster than roads. And, even with the most advanced emission control technology, they create pollution. A headlong rush to cars can slow the development of public transport. People adopt solitary lives as they stop using buses and trains. Many drivers also come to rely on their cars for even the shortest of trips when walking or cycling would be far healthier. There is no turning back, but it would be folly if China soon boasts the biggest traffic jams on earth.