CHINA’S AUTO CRISIS

By Logan Ma
Staff Writer

China’s decades-long economic surge has led to an ever-increasing number of automobiles on the roads. Although this development is a testament to the newfound opportunities available to everyday Chinese, it is not without its downsides. The growing number of private vehicles is overwhelming the transport infrastructure and is creating serious traffic congestion, particularly in China’s urban centers. Although steps have been taken to address these issues, they have been hampered not only by the massive scope of the problem but also by the inexperience and corruption of officials involved. Tackling this issue is of utmost importance for maintaining social stability. It could spark social unrest if left alone, something that authorities are keen to avoid.

Since then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping began the country’s march towards a market economy in the early 1980s, China has seen a great deal of change on all fronts. One of the most perceivable changes is the growing number of automobiles on the road. Between 1977 and 2008, per capita disposable income for Chinese households increased 46-fold in nominal terms. At the same time, vehicle ownership increased from one million to 51 million (“China Ends U.S.’s Reign”). According to a report provided by the Ministry of Public security, that number had increased to 114 million in first half of 2012, a number that was up 7.7 percent from six months earlier. The same report lists 17 cities with over one million cars, and five cities—namely Beijing, Chengdu, Tianjin, Shenzhen and Shanghai—had over two million cars (“Chinese Auto Ownership”). For comparison, a 2009 report by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation puts the number of automobiles in the city of Los Angeles slightly below two million (“The City of Los Angeles Transportation Profile 2009”).

Despite these impressive developments, China’s love affair with the automobile has not yet reached its apex. Although China has already surpassed both the United States as the world’s largest auto market and Japan as the world’s top automaker, the car ownership rate in China is only about six cars per 100 people, compared to 90 cars per 100 people in the United States (“Cracking China’s car market”). This leaves room for further expansion in the coming decades. A report by McKinsey & Co. estimates that China’s car market will grow ten-fold by 2030 (Joerres et al).

While the aforementioned figures are signs of positive economic development, the country’s infrastructure has been hard-pressed to accommodate the ever-growing number of vehicles on the road. An extreme case in point is August 2010 60-mile traffic jam near Beijing that lasted two weeks before authorities managed to disperse the gridlock. In this case, the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau blamed the congestion on insufficient traffic capacity brought on by maintenance construction (“Highway jam”). But even without the construction, Beijing’s highways are prone to gridlock. A survey conducted by IBM revealed that Beijing was third most painful city to commute in, surpassed only by Mexico City and Shenzhen, another Chinese city (“IBM Global Commuter Pain Survey”). Due to the lack of rail lines, coal bound for Beijing’s factories are transported via its highways in thousands of trucks per day. In addition, the city sits in a bottleneck point and drivers coming from the resource-rich northwest have to navigate the city’s six concentric circular highways in order to reach coastal ports to the south (“China Traffic Jam Could Last Weeks”). These features reveal a dire need for infrastructure improvements to combat congestion. Other cities across China face similar problems.

Government response to the increased congestion has been mixed. Actions by the central government reveal that China’s leaders are well aware of the growing need to tackle traffic congestion. Following the global financial meltdown of 2008, the central government unleashed a massive stimulus package, much of which entailed infrastructure spending. In 2010, 80 billion yuan (11.8 billion USD) was spent on transport infrastructure in Beijing alone (“The Great Crawl of China”). Just a few weeks ago a statement released on the State Council’s website pledged to ease traffic congestion by increasing public transportation usage to at least 60 percent of all motor vehicle use in towns and cities (“China to Boost Urban Transport”). But the government’s track record has shown that sincere efforts to tackle congestion are often hampered by bureaucratic inefficiencies and rampant corruption on the local level.

Besides the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Railways, the Public Security Bureau, the Bureau of Standards and various other provincial construction and transportation bureaus are involved in infrastructure improvements. This lack of centralization increases the likelihood of inter-governmental conflict as each faction competes for funding from the central government (Matuszak). Another impediment to infrastructure improvements is the notoriously high level of corruption amongst local officials. Farmers are pushed off their property, while local officials profit from illegal land sales. Contracts are doled out as political favors, resulting in poor planning and shoddy outcomes. Efficiency and need have taken a backseat to political grandstanding, and China’s attempts to accommodate an ever-growing number of automobiles suffer as a result.

Another disconcerting byproduct of China’s automobile boom is the rising rate of traffic related deaths. Since 1996, China has been ranked first worldwide in number of traffic deaths (“China’s road death rate”). In recent years, that designation has been by amplified by the massive wave of new drivers hitting the road. Traffic related deaths are the leading killer of Chinese under the age of 45. In 2011 alone, nearly 70,000 police-confirmed traffic deaths occurred, more than double the figure for the United States (“Road Safety Problems”). The actual number of traffic deaths may be much higher. A joint study conducted by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the China’s Central South University in 2008 revealed that thrice as many traffic deaths showed up in the Health Ministry’s death registration data than had previously been reported by the police (“Road Safety Problems”).

The reasons for China’s relatively higher death toll can be attributed to factors such as pedestrian behavior and road conditions, but much of the blame lies in poor driving habits. It is quite common for drivers to forgo common safety practices such as wearing seat belts and using turn signals. According to one foreigner writing about his driving experiences in China, windshield wipers and headlights are often seen as distractions (Hessler). One explanation for Chinese driving negligence is the relatively ease in acquiring a driving license. Technically, an aspiring driver has to undergo 70 hours of training over two months. But, loopholes undercut this requirement. In addition, ill-paid license examiners are easily bribed (“Dream Machines”). The result is that many of China’s newly licensed drivers hit the road with little or no experience.

As with infrastructure improvements, the central government has made a sincere effort to reduce traffic-related deaths, but that effort has been undercut by lack of experience in dealing with traffic-related issues. For example, in an attempt to curb traffic violations, earlier this year authorities from the Ministry of Public Security banned vehicles from running yellow lights. Under the new rule, yellow lights were considered the same as red lights. Running either a yellow or a red light would result in both a loss of six points in a 12-point system and a hefty fine. The ban not only removed the need for the yellow light but also led to more traffic collisions, as drivers had no prior warning of when to stop. Naturally, the public vigorously voiced its outrage against the new measure and ministry officials surprisingly suspended the yellow-light rule until further notice (“Slamming on the brakes”).

Chinese authorities have a long way to go in addressing the byproducts of their country’s massive automobile boom. In addition to causing an upsurge in traffic-related deaths, the automobile boom has exposed the inadequacies of China’s outdated infrastructure. But inexperience, bureaucratic inefficiencies and widespread local corruption have hampered efforts to address the problems associated with the ever-increasing number of automobiles. One thing is certain, however. Unless effective measures are implemented, the public’s faith in the government’s ability to address these issues can only decrease. As the yellow light episode has shown, Chinese citizens have become increasingly vocal in demanding a better quality of life. If the government cannot reciprocate those demands, social unrest is sure to follow.

Works Cited

Bradsher, Keither. “Road Safety Problems Pose Dire Threat in China.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 26 July 2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

“Chinese Auto Ownership Rose to 114 Million.” China Auto Web. ChinaAutoWeb Inc. 21 July 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

“China to Boost Urban Transport as City Congestion Worsens.” Bloomberg News. Bloomberg LP. 6 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

“China Ends U.S.’s Reign as Largest Auto Market.” Bloomberg News. Bloomberg LP. 11 Jan. 2010. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

“China’s road death rate highest in world.” People’s Daily Online. People’s Daily. 21 March 2008. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

“The City of Los Angeles Transportation Profile 2009.” LADOT. Los Angeles Department of Transportation. n.d. PDF file. 20 Jan. 2013.

“Dream Machines.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Ltd. 2 June 2005. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

“The Great Crawl of China.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Ltd. 26 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Hessler, Peter. “Wheels of Fortune: The People’s Republic learns to drive.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast. 26 Nov. 2007. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

“IBM Global Commuter Pain Survey.” IBM Press Room. IBM Corporation. 8 Sept. 2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Joerres, Martin and Jonathan Woetzel. “China’s Green Revolution.” McKinsey & Co. Feb. 2009. PDF file. 20 Jan. 2013.

Matuszak, Sascha. “Relieving China’s Traffic Jam.” ChengduLiving. n.p., 10 Sept. 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Oster, Shai. “China Traffic Jam Could Last Weeks.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Co. 24 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Qiang, Guo and Fang Yunyu. “Highway jam enters its 9th day, spans 100km.” The Global Times. Global Times. 23 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Schifferes, Steve. “Cracking China’s car market.” BBC News. BBC. 17 May 2007. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

“Slamming on the brakes.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Ltd. 12 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Photo by Philip

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