One Car Policy?

Anyone who has visited China recently would complain about traffic in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities – it’s unbearable, so is pollution. A growing middle class increasingly owns cars. The number of car owners in China is rising by 10 million a year. Last year, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest auto market.

China’s rapidly increasing demand for energy causes tremendous environmental concerns such as severe pollution and global warming. According to the International Energy Agency, China’s greenhouse gas emissions, although far lower than America’s when measured per person, are growing fast and are predicted to surpass America’s this year.

It sounds worrisome. But there are signs of hope. A recent The Economist article says China has tougher standards for fuel efficiency than America. “Its cars use 6.9 liters to travel 100 km compared with 9.8 liters in America. By next year the Chinese standard will rise to 6.5 liters – a level America will take a decade to reach under the most ambitious plans.” China is “the world’s fifth-biggest user of wind turbines, and the biggest consumer of the sort of solar panels used to heat water.”

The article went on saying that China’s success at curbing the growth in its populations – the so-called “one child policy” which is much criticized by the West – and reforestation also helped to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide each year. Between 1990 to 2005, China’s energy intensity (the ratio of energy-consumption to economic output) fell by over 4 % a year.

Perhaps China will come up with a “one car policy,” which I am certain won’t be criticized by the West this time. But once country opened up and Chinese could see how people lived on the other side of the world, there is no turning back. Would it be fair to say that Chinese citizens are less entitled to live as lavish as American do?

The Property-owning Middle Class

Home is a very important concept for Chinese people. A growing Chinese middle class can increasingly own their own homes. According to some estimates, China‘s rates of home ownership are as high as 80% in the cities, – topping US homeownership rates of about 69%.

Before the reform, all property in China was nationalized and “collectively owned by the people.” Housing was distributed along with work. During the Cultural Revolution, property owners were persecuted. But now, owning a house in China is a badge of pride. As a new home owner said, “Owning my own home will give me a sense of belonging.”

In the past two and half years, prices for housing have soared 40% in Beijing and 30% in Shanghai. A growing middle class with its wealth tied up in houses wants to pass these assets on to their only children. In March 2007, China’s lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress, passed a new law on property rights, which is mainly intended to reassure the country’s fast growing middle class that their assets are secure.

Private ownership of homes has profound implications for China’s political and economic systems. As Internet entrepreneur Ding, who is trying to create a Facebook.com for the Chinese middle class, said, “Chinese people used to be tied to their homes chosen by their work units. Now they are able to choose their communities, their neighborhoods. It’s a fundamental change in their lives.”

Ultimately, the Chinese middle class may fundamentally change China in ways we cannot foresee. It would be interesting to see how a property-owning middle class will influence government policies, how home owners will protect their rights, and to what degree it will lead to a more pluralistic society.