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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Young China Finds New Driving Force

BEIJING -- Yao Li's friends told her she had to learn three skills to be a thoroughly modern person: a foreign language, computer literacy and how to drive a car. So, having mastered English and conquered a word processor, she signed up at the Dragon Well Driving School for 90 hours of lessons.

"It's a kind of fashion,'' said Yao, 38, an unemployed secretary. "I don't have a car, but it doesn't matter. Everyone is learning how to do it.''

Indeed, Beijing and other big Chinese cities are seeing a driving-school boom, with thousands of students paying more than a year's average wage to learn how to survive on China's chaotic roads.

Spurred on by a government policy to create an "automobile culture'' in the Bicycle Kingdom, Chinese are rapidly developing a love affair with the automobile that one day may well rival America's.

Already, foreign car manufacturers are vying to create a Chinese people's car, one small enough for the country's choked roadways and inexpensive enough to be affordable. Eventually, optimistic officials predict, the automobile will be the main mode of transportation for China's 1.2 billion people.

Yet critics say that in the rush to become an automotive superpower, China's central planners have given little thought to the environmental impact of tens of millions more cars on the roads, or to the transportation needs of what is still a poor country.

"As the economy develops, it's understandable that many urban dwellers will want to buy cars, but wide-scale car ownership will sharpen the problems on China's roads and won't help the majority of people,'' said Ren Daren, a professor at China's Public Security University.

For those caught up in the auto euphoria, however, concerns about where or how they will drive a car are lost in the thrill of obtaining a coveted license.

"I think a car must be so convenient. It's also a sign of my country's economic development,'' said Wang Zhengyu, 21, a magazine proofreader. "It's a requirement for being a modern person.''

At the Dragon Well Driving School in a north Beijing suburb, about 2,000 other students have the same idea. Some want to be taxi drivers, others think it will help them get a job or get ahead at their job. But all are convinced that driving is the wave of the future.

The school, one of 217 in Beijing, charges $425 tuition for 15 hours in the classroom and 75 hours on the road -- the requirement for learning how to drive a truck, which most people choose.

By law, individuals are not allowed to obtain a driver's license. Instead, they must be sponsored by a company or organization -- almost always affiliated with the state in some way -- where the average Chinese works and lives. It is the "work unit,'' not the individual, which takes responsibility for traffic mishaps.

Once a license is obtained, finding a car is the next challenge. Officials report that Beijing has 840,000 vehicles but 1.2 million licensed drivers.

The cheapest sedan, produced by a Chinese-French joint venture, costs about $15,000. The most expensive is a $25,000 model produced by the Chinese No. 1 Auto Works and Volkswagen.

Chinese automobile production, which topped 250,000 cars last year, is expected to hit 1.5 million by 2000 and 4 million by 2010. To give an idea of how quickly China's auto culture is developing, the country had just 150,000 cars on the road in 1979. Today it has 1.4 million cars.

Some economists estimate that within five years China will have 5 million families making between $3,750 and $6,250 a year. Given the fact that the Chinese pay almost no taxes and virtually nothing for rent or health care, that is estimated to be enough income to add 500,000 private car owners.

But while demographics and popular enthusiasm may support an auto boom, little else in China does. China's roads, for example, are a mess. Rush hour in cities such as Beijing lasts all day, save for a two-hour break at noon. According to the State Statistical Bureau, China's auto production raced ahead at an annual rate of 17 percent between 1979 and 1993, but the road network grew by just 1.1 percent a year.