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China and Cars
by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler
Did you know GM sells more cars in China than in the US? In March, GM sold 230,048 vehicles in China and 188,011 in the US. The US auto giant is on pace to sell more than two million vehicles in China in 2010 and three million by 2015.
"Overall auto sales in China rose 56% in March from a year earlier to a monthly record of 1.74 million units," reported the Wall Street Journal. Total Chinese vehicle sales may hit 17 million in 2010, more than the biggest year ever in the US. China surpassed the US in auto sales in 2009, but that was largely because of a massive downturn in the American market.
Today a Beijing tourist is more likely to encounter a traffic jam than see the Forbidden City. In 2009 auto companies sold 13.6 million vehicles in China, 13 times the total number of cars in circulation in 1990.
Thirty years ago the Chinese Communist Party began to reform the country's state-dominated economy. State assets were sold, social entitlements cut, and consumerism unleashed. Capitalism was the new ideology. A decade on, the government discovered that this required an automotive sector centered around the personal car.
The Chinese government understands, in the words of the Economist, that "the car industry more or less invented modern industrial capitalism." Which is why, according to the Financial Times, "China's car-centered model of development has been a mainstay of economic growth in recent years.. [T]he spin-off benefits from burgeoning car sales have been enormous. Each car requires several thousand parts, hundreds - if not thousands - of suppliers, roads, car parks, driving schools, petrol stations and other service industries."
For the past 75 years the automobile has been the number one source of capitalist profit. An industry with a voracious and varied appetite, automakers are among the leading consumers of copper, aluminum, plastics, iron, lead, rubber, textiles, vinyl, computer chips and steel. Nine of the world's 10 biggest corporations in 2007 were car and oil companies (Wal-Mart, the largest, is highly dependent on the private automobile).
The Communist Party has worked vigorously for China to join this capitalist heaven. In 1994, the auto industry was named one of five "pillar industries" by the government. To prop up this pillar, state banks have invested billions of dollars in car manufacturing. There are now automotive factories in almost all of China's 31 provinces, and last September, Wang Chuanfu, a "carmaker," became China's richest man.
An indirect subsidy to the auto industry, hundreds of billions of dollars in public money have been pumped into road construction. "Since the 1990s," reported the Economist, "China has built an expressway network crisscrossing the country that is second only to America's interstate highway system in length." Between 1998 and 2008, 30,000 miles of expressway were built.
Cars are literally shaping the physical landscape. Historic neighborhoods have been torn to the ground to build new roads. A forest of roadside billboards has sprung up, and the sprawling outskirts of major cities have undergone complete makeovers as big box retailers such as Wal-Mart move in.
"...public space for bicycles has been shrinking under the tyranny of the car."
By 2018, five million people are expected to move to Shanghai's suburbs. A source of inspiration for this suburban shift is one of the world's most sprawling cities. In early 2008 a delegation of Chinese government officials, architects and bankers toured the outskirts of Phoenix. USA Today reported, "Members of the group studied the streetscape, the golf course, the spa, the cyber cafe, the healthcare amenities and the design of the single family homes at Sun City Festival, a 3,000 acre, planned community for people over 55."
In a country that has 200 million bicycles, cities such as Shanghai have banned them from many streets. The Washington Post explained in December: "Major streets boasted wide bike lanes, sidewalks carried ample parking space for bikes and bikes usually had the right of way at intersections [in China]. But lately, public space for bicycles has been shrinking under the tyranny of the car."
Cars need a highly controlled environment where everyone follows their rules. To enforce these rules, especially when the car is new, it takes repression. "Traffic police," reported Shanghai Daily, "want to publicly shame jaywalkers and cyclists who violate traffic rules by displaying photographs and videos of their offences in newspapers and on TV."
Those lucky enough to escape public shame may not be so lucky when riding their bikes, walking or taking public transit - still the most popular modes of transportation. China has the highest number of crash deaths of any country, with 100,000 people dying annually in recent years. And the victims are often non-car users, which has stoked rising bitterness over the growing class divide in Chinese society, where a minority of the population has accrued the benefits from the shift towards capitalism. A manifestation of this class divide is the rising dominance of the car at the expense of other transportation methods. For non-car drivers - the 500 million who get by with less than two dollars a day, among others - transportation is becoming more dangerous and, as cars congest routes, more time consuming.
Cars have not only affected the domestic landscape; they are changing China's role in the world. Increased resource requirements have led Chinese companies to scour the globe for commodities, no matter the ecological costs. For instance, a Chinese company bought a $4.6 billion stake in Alberta's Tar Sands, which are among the world's dirtiest sources of oil.
Until the mid-1990s China was oil self-sufficient, a position that has changed dramatically. China is now the number two consumer of oil worldwide and the country has been responsible for a great deal of the world's total oil growth in recent years. With less than 2% of the world's oil reserves, most of its growing needs will be imported.
The Communist Party is increasingly concerned over the security of the country's oil supply, as demonstrated by its $20 billion oil agreement with Venezuela and the launch of the National Strategic Oil Reserves Office. China is, in fact, correct to be worried about its oil supply. Some say the invasion of Iraq was meant to enhance US control over the Middle East's black gold in light of a rapidly expanding Chinese appetite. Elsewhere, reports the Washington Post, "The United States is building a network of military bases and diplomatic missions whose main goal is to protect American access to oil fields in volatile places such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and tiny Sao Tome and, as important, to deny that access to China."
Fifteen years ago automobiles in China guzzled about 10% of the country's much smaller total oil usage. Today cars and light trucks consume about 40% of all China's oil. So long as the country continues along the North American "development" path, there's no reason to believe that cars won't someday consume half of the country's oil. The ecological consequences will become increasingly severe.
The further into the future we peer, the more frightening the implications become. North America has already proved that a car culture severely damages the environment. Cars leak lead battery acid, brake fuel and anti-freeze, all of which seep into the earth. Brake pads house asbestos, and air conditioners exhale ozone-depleting coolants. The rubber from tires takes centuries to decompose, and entire eco-systems have been exterminated by expanding auto infrastructure. Cars also emit large amounts of CO2. It is crucial to consider the direction of the recent surge in automobility. Currently, China has some 40 vehicles per thousand residents, while Western Europe has about 590, and the US 950. With a population of roughly a billion more people than that of the US, China clearly has the potential to absorb many more cars.
Chinese environmentalist Liang Congjie does the math and describes the threat to human survival that the car now poses. "If each Chinese family has two cars like U.S. families, then the cars needed by China, something like 600 million vehicles, will exceed all of the cars in the world combined. That would be the greatest disaster for mankind." Simply put, the day their future looks like our present, we're done for.
If China is following our lead, perhaps it's time we get off this road to ecological ruin.
Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social, and Environmental Decay by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler will be published in 2011.
[10 sep 10]