Fast as a Shark: Living on Chinese Rocks

I can't in truth call my Shanghai trip a comedy of errors, although there were errors, one of which resulted in my flying home first class. And while some of the Engrish I encountered was laugh-out-loud gut-busting. I can't quite refer to it as a tragedy, either. What it was, however, was a slightly nebulous, inchoate paradigm-fucker of a time/history/distance shift.

Pudong, the area of Shanghai where Audi put us up, didn't exist in any way, shape or form resembling what it is now a mere fifteen years ago. The government laid a bunch of nightsoil in anticipation of a flood of foreign capital and a thousand skyscrapers bloomed. We joked after Chairman Li's speech in Detroit that the Changfeng press conference was an example of the Great Leap Sideways. Having seen Shanghai, I'm not so sure.

For most of us, the Chinese auto market seems far-off and regrettably goofball. And it is that. It's also the second largest in the world. Bear in mind, the first mass-produced Chinese car debuted in 1958; Henry Ford had over half a century on it, having founded FoMoCo a mere two years after the quelling of the Boxer Rebellion. Today? The market ranges from double-dutied $500k Rollers to $3,000 domestic copies of outdated Suzuki Altos. The Jin Mao Building is the fifth-highest in the world, yet won't-take-no-for-an-answer hustlers hang just outside attempt to pawn genuine faux Rolexes off on you.

Leaving Shanghai, fellow autojourno Jon Guzik and I were strolling through Shanghai Pudong airport. Guzik had picked up a faux Louis Vuitton bag the day before and was using at as a carry-on. Then the strap snapped.

The problem is, that's the reality of much of China — the reality that springs to mind when we're not thinking of Mao posters, little red books, subpar working conditions or the death vans for inveterate cuties. But the reality of the Chinese auto industry is that there will be a day — and that day is rapidly approaching — that the strap won't break. Brace yourselves. Shanghai '07 may well stand as the first drops of a watershed that could flush the colon of the auto industry to the point that we'll no longer recognize it. It wasn't in the cars we saw. It was in the actions; the attitudes. The propaganda was at times laughable, but the grasp on what it takes to compete primarily has to do with Western tastes in marketing. No American shopping for a heavy-duty truck will want to buy "The Floating Aerodrome on Land," but cut-rate goods built to a solid standard are coming — while not as luxe as the A8L we rode in, the Chinese-built A6L's interior panel fit was actually better.

The show may have been somewhat provincial and the air-conditioning non-existent; English-language press kits may have been few and far between; the models may have been beautiful but ill-trained, but there was an undeniable import inherent in the event that I didn't see in Paris, Detroit or New York. Only Los Angeles came close, although it'll be a few more years before it truly regains its footing. Nevertheless, LA and Shanghai are shifting while the others are riding the status quo so cluelessly and intently that they may as well have had the In The Army Now album cranking full-bore for the length of the exhibitions.

A Japanese automaker overtook GM for the first time in first-quarter sales; Japan is an aging population with less and less of a workforce; China is growing exponentially, geometrically, algebraically, ballistically and without regard for your interpretation of integers. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere may be seven decades overdue, but it is coming. And don't be surprised if in 50 years, the big players end in "-eng" rather than "-a."

Thanks for listening. We'll see you next Wednesday.

"Fast as a Shark" is a weekly electronic broadside aimed at what has been historically right and terribly wrong with the autmotive industry and culture. And yes, a pretty girl once kissed us for singing an Accept song at karaoke.