I am coming back to China after having been away for months. My trusted sidekick of many years, a lady surnamed Zhang, seeks my advice. “Bertel, we have car problems.” Uh-oh, I think, and I mentally do a review of my accounts. This smells expensive. As it turns out, the problem is bigger than what money can solve.
Ms. Zhang explains that her mother won the lottery. The Beijing license plate lottery.
“Now my mum needs to buy a car real soon, otherwise the win is forfeited.”
Ok, so buy a car, I say.
“But we already have two, and my mother does not enjoy driving.”
Ms. Zhang the elder could not resist entering the lottery though.
As the world knows, Beijing has enacted a lottery system to curb the number of cars on Beijing’s roads. That system seems to have the opposite effect.
Get rid of the oldest car and buy a new one, I suggest.
“That doesn’t solve the problem. I can keep the license plate of the old one when I sell it. We now have three plates. What shall I do?”
How about someone in the family, I suggest. Chinese are big on family.
“They don’t want it, they all have a car. Some have two.”
Ms. Zhang then relates to me the story of a lucky member of the extended family who came into two more license plates than he needs. “He bought two extra cars just to keep the plates. The cars sit in his garage.”
How about simply forgetting the whole thing? She already has two cars, does not want three, to hell with the extra license plate.
“But that plate is very valuable. Very hard to get.” Ms. Zhang is deeply conflicted.
If it’s so valuable, then sell the plate, I say. This is China, everything has its price.
“Cannot. Plate not transferrable,” says Ms Zhang. And there is an even bigger problem:
“After winning the lottery, if you don’t buy a car, you may never ever enter the lottery again.”
For the first time, I am out of good advice. I muse that when I came to China first in 2004, people were poor, nobody had a car, the highways were empty, and now, not even 10 years later …
Maybe that’s the solution to revive flagging car sales in Europe, and to bring America back to the 17 million heydays: Limit the cars people can have. Then, everybody will want three.