When Chairman Mao was running China, he could look out contentedly on tens of millions of his countrymen clad in identical gray suits, pedaling silently and docilely to work on identical black bicycles.
For utopian socialists, it didn't get any better than that — and it was environmentally friendly. Nobody bothered to ask what the people thought, but we know now. Freed from the restraints of socialism, guess what the Chinese want? They want SUVs. Big, clunky SUVs.
According to a Wall Street Journal dispatch from the big Beijing auto show, SUVs are the fastest growing segment of the Chinese auto market, with sales doubling to 200,000 vehicles from 2001 to 2003 and expected to grab as much as 20 percent of the market in five years.
Chinese and foreign carmakers have launched 20 new SUV models to meet demand, like Great Wall's new Safe, a Toyota 4Runner look-alike selling for $10,000. Beijing Automotive offers the Land Rover-like Beigiluba for $9,600 to $13,200. Before you ask, "When is a Beigiluba dealer coming to a location near me?" the Journal warns that Western and Japanese companies say these cars may be cheap but they're also primitive. For the more demanding motorist, Jeep, GM, Ford, BMW and Mitsubishi all have SUVs on display.
SUVs might not seem like the vehicle of choice in Chinese cities where the traffic is glacial and the side streets narrow, but Chinese drivers are drawn to them because of their rugged looks, high-up seating, feeling of safety and passenger and load capacity.
The appeal of SUVs is the despair of government planners who fret about pollution and China's growing dependence on foreign oil. The answer, of course, is to give the people what they want, only with higher mileage and fewer emissions, because unless Chairman Mao returns, they're going to keep buying them.
And the Chinese buy them for a reason the old Marxist would never have understood. As an executive of the Great Wall auto company explained to the Journal, "People like them."