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BEIJING - Discontent is intensifying across China with speculation that more cities will follow Beijing and Guangzhou and limit the number of new cars on the streets as they try to tackle traffic gridlock.
Beijing started capping new car ownership at 20,000 a month through a lottery system in January last year. But the number of applicants reached 1.07 million this month in the capital city.
"I have long wanted to buy a car and through years of hard work saved enough money," said Xia Xiaoming, an IT technician who came to Beijing five years ago. "But more and more people are applying for license plates, making them increasingly scarce."
He added, "I have tried my luck for one-and-a-half years. Now the possibility of winning the lottery has dropped to 1:50 and I'm frustrated."
In a poll conducted by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport last year, 75.7 percent said they did not think traffic jams were easing and only 8.9 percent approved of the lottery policy. Ironically, netizens translate the initials of the address of the lottery website (www.bjhjyd.gov.cn) as "Beijing will still be congested."
But simple arithmetic suggests that without the restrictions, an annual increase of 800,000 to one million new cars would make Beijing's traffic conditions even worse, said Guo Jifu, director of the Beijing Transportation Research Center.
Beijing resident Daniel Cotterall from New Zealand said, "As far as I'm concerned, the more limitations the better. Sure I can understand the frustrations of people who felt they were encouraged by government policy to buy a car, but the fact is that in Beijing we are being suffocated by cars."
In Shanghai, the country's financial hub, the government uses an auction to control the plate supply and the price has kept hitting new highs. The plate, currently worth more than 60,000 yuan (9,464 US dollars), is said to be the "world's most expensive iron sheet."
Shanghai citizen Xu Yong, who got married last year and works in a logistic company, said, "It adds to my burden because I'm a house slave and have to pay a big, long mortgage.
"Many people including me registered the cars in the neighboring Jiangsu Province to save money. But we the poor have to make way for the rich during the rush hours Monday through Friday when our cars are not allowed to run on the overpasses."
To the dismay of many who want to become vehicle owners, the booming southern city of Guangzhou recently announced a similar policy, which allows only 10,000 new cars to be registered per month.
Deputy mayor Chen Rugui explained that Guangzhou saw the number of vehicles grow an annual average of 20 percent over the past five years to 2.42 million, while roads only extended two percent. "If we don't put restrictions today, we will do so in the future.
"There may be no other choices for mega-cities like Guangzhou at the moment. But the public is discontent with the fact that there are too many government cars on the streets," said a librarian surnamed Liu who has a car but usually goes to work on foot.
Guangzhou's move also triggered a wave of criticism from auto industrial groups. Dong Yang, general secretary of the government-sanctioned China Automobile Manufacturers Association, issued a statement on his blog that he objected to moves that would hurt China's economy and auto industry if more cities followed suit.
Auto sales in China rose a scant 2.5 percent in 2011, the slowest pace in more than a decade, as the economic growth slowed and rising oil prices and traffic controls kept buyers out of showrooms. So far this year the industry has showed no signs of recovering.
Cars themselves are not the only reason for traffic jams and Chinese cities should first improve infrastructure, urban planning and public transport, instead of reining in the number of cars, said Wang Xia, a vehicle expert from the China Council International Trade Promotion.
Although auto sales in China are decelerating, analysts believe that the market will continue to expand, given the relatively low level of vehicle ownership among increasingly affluent families. People are now guessing which city will be the next one to adopt the restrictive policy.
"Some provincial capitals are expected to take actions because they have to do so under increasing pressure of traffic congestions and emissions in the process of urbanization," said Qiao Xinsheng, sociologist of the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law.
The first expected move came in August as the legal office of the Xi'an municipal government said the northwest city would possibly limit the number of vehicles. Though the government took back the controversial statement a week later, it raised a storm of conjecture nationwide that major cities including Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Zhengzhou are thinking about such measures.
"If you ask me which city will come next, I say it can be any of the cities with a population of over 10 million," said Luo Lei, deputy chief of the China Automobile Dealers Association.
Even in Shiyan, a small city in central China, the local newspaper reported that traffic jams took place almost every day and the possibility of limitations could not be excluded. "Shiyan has 195 vehicles per thousand people, higher than Guangzhou's 150, " it said.