“Boo-Ek-Ka” is one of the most popular cars in China. That is how Buick is pronounced in Chinese.

Many consider it to be the equivalent of the Mercedes — but more economical. In the United States, General Motors considered ending the production of Buicks; they are primarily bought by older folks with brand loyalty. Based on American sales alone, Buick would likely have gone the same route as Pontiac if it wasn’t for the much larger sales of Buick in China.

As China’s middle class rapidly expanded over the last four decades, Beijing proclaimed that it would encourage automobile ownership. China has a huge population and was modernizing and expanding its mass transit. Streets were already overcrowded, so I considered this policy insane. But China wanted to provide more jobs in car manufacture and car repair and maintenance. This would employ people who did not qualify to enter universities. It worked.

China, likewise, expanded its road infrastructure. Today, many Chinese families use their own cars to be tourists in their own country. Nevertheless, China is in a constant race to stay ahead of gridlock. The problem with owning a car is not traveling places but finding a parking spot when you get there.  

Until a decade ago, Chinese citizens were so new to driving that they took driver's training from driving schools. But recently, parents are able to begin training their sons and daughters. Since farming was formerly small-plot intensive farming, there was no opportunity to learn to highway drive “on the farm.”

When China opened up car manufacturing, many rich Chinese consortia wanted into this business. China set a high investment bar to begin as an automaker. Fifty years ago, there was little more than the Hongqi or “Red Flag” sedan for officials made by FAW (Fujian Auto Works) that also made trucks and tractors. Today, the selection of vehicles in China is greater than anywhere else in the world. Many car start-ups “shook out,” and major Chinese brands today include BYD (Build Your Dream), Chery, Jiangling, Lifan, Great Wall Motors, and Geely. Geely also owns Volvo.

Foreign car brands are everywhere in China, but the model names may be different. Toyota’s sedan is the Crown. Volkswagon makes the Santana, as well as the Passat we recognize. You can find virtually every American, Japanese and German brand of auto. Most models are medium or small sedans and SUVs. A large car takes up too much space and would have difficulty maneuvering the side roads and fitting into limited parking.

And China’s large semi-trailer freight trucks are far lower-powered than our semis, and therefore cannot haul large loads at high speeds. My father worked in road construction in the 1950-60s and told me that our big and fast semi trucks tore up American roads. And each summer we are constantly weaving around patch jobs or total resurfacing. I did not really believe him until I saw how China’s superhighways lasted decades without such repairs. China moves more freight by rail.

Foreign cars are built in joint venture. Volkswagon was an early brand, produced in factories outside Shanghai. Nearly all of the taxis in Shanghai are Volkswagon Santana sedans. Wuhan is a city on the Yangtze River that was a French concession during imperialistic times before 1949; today, Wuhan makes the French Citroen, and all of the taxis in Wuhan are Citroen. The Chinese support their local industries and “buy local.” But in large cities lacking a major automaker, taxis come in all brands.

Over the last four years, all-electric cars began to appear and are becoming common. While at the Chinese Academy of Science in 2016, I saw electric recharge stations installed on campus.

This last year, China began issuing a new green license plate for electric vehicles. The cost was low — encouragement to move away from gasoline-powered cars. Our roads are maintained from taxes on gasoline. China’s superhighways are toll roads, allowing them to collect user fees that will not change as they convert from gas to electric power. While recharge stations are expanding in the large cities, my Chinese university was in a small town. Owners ran extension cords from their building.  

China now has more cars on the road than any other country. And with over a million electric cars on the road, China is moving to electric as fast as they can provide the recharge stations. If you have concerns over traffic pollution, well, that should clean the air.

 

Dr. John Richard Schrock is the editor of the Kansas School Naturalist and former chairman of the Biology Department at Emporia State University.