Chinese consumers are buying cars at breakneck speed, spurred on by new government policies that allow banks to lend on vehicles and, for some, through a desire to impress the neighbors.
More than 3.91 million, of the 4 million motor vehicles manufactured between January and November 2003, were sold.
"China's auto demand is expected to rise to 10 million by 2010, second only to North America," said Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice-minister in charge of the State Development and Reform Commission in mid-December.
Rising income accounts for only part of the buying frenzy. A car, like a laptop computer and a house, has long been regarded as a coveted emblem of a well-off life.
The Chinese Government's policy to encourage individuals to buy cars or houses in installments through bank credits has boosted consumption of luxury items. The concept of credit is relatively new in China.
"I just have to pay a 20 per cent down-payment, a mere 40,000 yuan (US$4,820) of the total cost, and the rest will be covered in eight years by a monthly payment of 1,600 yuan (US$193)," said Wang Zong, an air-conditioner company manager who has just bought a new car.
"Next year will see auto production reach 5 million. It's no big problem to increase it by 1 million if auto-related policies remain stable," said Li Jingsheng, director of the China Auto Information Research Institute.
Major world automakers, including German's Volkswagen and BMW, General Motors of the United States, and Toyota and Nissan of Japan, have rushed to enter the lucrative market by forming joint ventures and alliances with Chinese partners.
110,000 yuan (US$13,300) Jetta produced by FAW-Volkswagen, the joint venture between Volkswagen and China's First Automotive Works (FAW), are to be sold for their popular and stable performance on the Chinese market.
Luxury cars like the locally produced BMW-3 and BMW-5 series have also been well received by the Chinese. Some 800 were sold since their debut in mid-October.
Among domestic cars, this year's star QQ, a mini-car launched in summer, has been in the spotlight. It's competitive price 49,800 yuan or US$6,000 and colorful looks make it a "pet" for many young people.
"Owning a car is no big news now. Some people come to me and decide to buy a car within one hour as if they are buying a TV. It's amazing," said Gao Lelin, a car salesman at the Asian Games Village auto market, the biggest of its kind in Beijing.
"It's especially true when the price is below 150,000 yuan (US$18,000)," Gao said. He referred to the amount as "affordable" for many families nowadays.
The current situation was unimaginable two decades ago when China was at the threshold of reform and opening-up.
(China Daily January 2, 2004)