Audis signify a “whiff of corruption”; Buicks, luxury and respectability; BMWs, callous wealth; and in the wake of rumors surrounding a fiery car crash during Bo Xilai’s national downfall, the pitch-black Ferrari is now associated with larger-than-life international political intrigue.
The one motif to tie all these car brands together? The graft and arrogance of China’s ruling class.
The true meaning of “gongche”
Whereas there aren’t many meanings attached to government cars in the West, “gongche,” or the public car, is prominent in the minds of many Chinese. Before 1994, car ownership and black cars in particular were the exclusive perk of top government agencies and Communist party officials. Peter Hessler’s book Country Driving describes the close association between sleek cars and China’s civil service:
“In the countryside, black Santanas with heavily tinted windows were trouble. They were cadre cars…Black Santanas cruised around like small-town bullies blaring their horns, passing on the right, cutting people off. In a big city like Beijing, corrupt cadres bought black Audi A6s and A8s, and those were vehicles to avoid, especially if you were on a bike.”
And though most of China’s barely fathomable car growth (the number of cars increased 20-fold between 2000 and 2010) is from private purchases, the collective memory of government cadres and officials in sleek new cars is not easily erased.
First they get jealous, then they get angry
More recently, microblog platforms like weibo have created a forum for coordinated public outrage. As reported by the LA Times, a microblog site called “Anti-Official Cars Extravagance” became a hit as Chinese started posting photographs of expensive luxury cars owned by the government–“corruption on wheels” according to Wang Yukai, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing.
The luxury cars stood in stark contrast with recent high-profile accidents involving overloaded school buses ferrying school children. In one dreadful accident in November 2011, eighteen preschoolers were killed in Gansu province when sixty-two children were stuffed in a “school van” designed for nine people that collided head-on with a truck. The site attracted enough attention to be shut down.
According to the LA times, the commentators were particularly scathing about the expensive cars with military plates. “Why does the military need sports cars? Will it help them run faster when there’s a war?”
They do *what* in Finland?
Public anger has cropped up again in one weibo thread that has become popular in the past few weeks, which describes how government officials in other countries travel. For example, Boris Johnson, mayor of London, rides a bike to work every day while Finland only has four public officials with designated public cars. (Though NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg wasn’t mentioned, netizen reactions to his use of the subway–via SUV–would have been interesting).
Many netizens expressed disbelief that luxury cars weren’t a mainstay for public officials in other countries: “Real or fake?” asked @记忆匆匆. Others lamented the perceived corruption from the high numbers of luxury cars. @Blinglulu tweeted, “When our country only has 10,000 public cars, then comes the day we’ll democratically elect our leaders.”
Several commenter joked about the seemingly low status and wealth of the mayor of London and officials from Finland: “Have they been hit so hard by the economic crisis? That’s a pity” wrote @嘉兴许康. “So what if we know all of this? This just increases the pride of Chinese officials,” wrote @幸福的蜗牛j, pointing at the already deeply-ingrained association between materialism and status among China’s ruling elite.
But others questioned whether the car was the problem. @陆长森 asked whether the comparative dearth of luxury cars in foreign officialdom resulted “because they are not corrupt by nature or because their system forces them to be?” And as the rising Chinese middle class aspires to own more cars, there was also significant debate as to whether aspiring to luxury was in fact a bad thing: As @大梦VIP pointed out, “On the other hand, the taxis that ordinary Finlanders use are all Mercedes.” Referring to the loving relationship between the power elite and luxury cars, @Andy891 noted that “Maybe the reason is because the developed countries are rich already [such that the officials there no longer crave luxury as much?].”
Cleaning things up, sort of
The key tension is that luxury cars are hugely desirable for almost all Chinese consumers, who are slowly coming to enjoy a level of wealth where such luxury is possible; but at the same time, certain luxury cars have become associated with corruption and government graft. For many Westerners, “clean” cars signify vehicles that have low emissions–these cars are the solution to curbing China’s huge pool of vehicular carbon emissions as well as the heavy smog in many Chinese cities. For Chinese, “clean” cars also take on a different meaning–free of associations with corruption, graft, and excess.
So what’s next? In February, as the Wall Street Journal reports, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology posted a list of 412 vehicles–none of which were foreign-made–likely to be approved as government purchases. It isn’t an outright ban, but it’s a start. More importantly, though undoubtedly motivated in part by the domestic auto industry, this “soft” prohibition on foreign cars (there are scarcely any domestic luxury cars) could constitute an official realization that government cars have become dangerous symbols of the privilege and graft that have become associated with Chinese officialdom.