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If you own a car in China, you're one in 6 million. But that may change as first car dealerships open

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THREE textile workers in crumpled business suits gathered around the cream-colored Volga sedan. They came from Inner Mongolia, and the sturdy Soviet car seemed suitable to the driving conditions back home. They hoped it was for sale.

But the new car, parked in front of the Vehicle Trading Center, already had been sold for 68,000 yuan (about $24,000). The car-hunting party was even more discouraged to learn there was a six-month wait for a new car at Peking's only automobile sales office.

China is one of the last countries on earth to be spared the agony and ecstasy of modern, private transportation. Private vehicles are rare to nonexistent.

The numbers average out to about one passenger car for every 6 million people in China. This compares with one car for every 25 people in neighboring Hong Kong and one for every five people in Japan.

And, until a few months ago, there was no place in China where people could go to buy a car or truck, even if they had the cash. Even now that China's first sales offices have opened their doors, it's still very difficult to drive away in a new car.

In Peking, some 200 people a day pour into the trading center's newly built offices to look over glossy brochures and to study a chalkboard listing the prices and models of cars and trucks for sale.

There is no showroom and there are seldom any vehicles to inspect. The center provides no servicing and no financing -- cash must be paid in advance. And buyers have to travel to the port of delivery to pick up imported models -- to Tianjin (21/2 hours away by train) or more likely to a port near Canton (36 hours by train).

``Anyone who has the money can buy a car from us,'' claims Lu Xue Hai, deputy general manager of the Peking Vehicle Trading Center.

He says buyers need only a letter of introduction -- not a permit, he insists -- from their work unit, neighborhood committee, or village government. The letter must confirm the need for a vehicle and attest that it will not be resold for profit.

Prospective buyers who have the letter, who are prepared to pay cash, and who are willing to travel for pickup are often discouraged by the long wait.

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