Beijing Declares War On Cars: A War Of Words

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

For the past two weeks, China’s capital had been awash in rumors that it would use stern methods to stamp out rampant car growth. Most popular rumor: A one car policy. Only one per resident. There are 4.7 million cars in Beijing and 22 million people. That disparity did not allay the worries of motorized Beijingers. They want their two cars just like they want their two kids. A run on the showrooms ensued, dealers ran out of cars.

In numbers: The city of Beijing usually registers 1000 cars a day. Lately, that number had risen to 2000 a day. The rumors caused panic buying. During the week from Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, “Beijing had 21,000 new cars on the roads, translating to 3,000 more cars per day,” reports People’s Daily. To curb car growth caused by car growth curbing rumors, the city had to do something fast. And they did.

Today, readers of People’s Daily’s sister paper Global Times were greeted by the headline “Beijing declares war on cars.” On closer inspection, it is a war of words. Or not even a war. More like a finger wagging.

On Monday, the city posted a plan on its website to solicit public opinion on what to do with all those cars. This may sound odd to those who think of China as an authoritarian police state, but it is actually quite common here. Plans are open for discussion, and depending on where the discussion leads, plans are changed or shelved totally. There is no voting. But the government keeps a constant finger on the pulse of public opinion, unlike others that only read polls before voting time.

The new plan is a mix of everything. From expanding public transportation to higher parking fees, from new underground tunnels to a call to work from home. Conspicuously amiss: The much expected curb on car purchases.

Even the Wall Street Journal had expected (hoped for?) harsher measures. The WSJ complains that “Monday’s document left vague many details,” and that no-one at the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport would return their calls.

Actually, the most radical part of the plan is a proposed limitation on the purchase of new government cars for the next five years. The capital has around 700,000 government vehicles, nearly 15 percent of the city’s car ownership. Auto analyst Jia Xinguang tells China Daily that “Government cars are far more frequently used than private cars, often for personal use.” Really? Controlling the number of government cars is welcome but it is more effective to limit their use, Jia suggests.

What is the authoritarian state coming to? The people get higher parking fees, but the officials get no new cars? Expect that one not to survive the discussion stage.

Beijingers hate traffic jams. Beijingers love their cars. And the city knows that.

With all the discussion on curbing car growth in China, there is one item that many forget. Cars are considered a strategic industry in China. Nearly all major car companies are state owned. There is rarely a province that does not have (or want) its very own car producer. Beijing owns BAIC, Shanghai owns SAIC, FAW and Dongfeng are owned by the central government. Despite all the green talk, the Chinese government is just as concerned with higher car sales as other car company owning governments.

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  • Lokki Lokki on Dec 14, 2010

    What is the local commuter-train/subway situation like Beijing? Here in Dallas, one of the most sprawling cities you can imagine, we are being forced to put in a commuter train system that almost no one rides because it goes almost nowhere. Surely under a Communist dictatorship, the answer is that (just as is said here in Dallas): people don't need cars and they should take the train instead. Since they are in the position to build either (no fights about eminent domain vs. property rights in China!) why have they even permitted car ownership when everyone knows that trains are better for the planet and better for society and, well, just plain better!

  • 63649 63649 on Dec 14, 2010

    Simple, eliminate free public parking and let the market set the prices. It works wonders in Tokyo. American cities are learning that 'free' parking is not free. They can slowly start ramping up taxes on car ownership as well. This type of expense can be limited to Beijing, so it's not like it will curb the countries appetite for vehicles, but it will at least put the burden of the cost of vehicles more directly on the people owning them.

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