This past Monday marked the opening of the bi-annual Beijing Auto Show (in the off years it moves to Shanghai), one of the biggest and most significant car shows in the world given that China is now the world’s largest automotive market.
It’s held in the New China International Exhibition Center, a monstrous facility built about eight years ago in the Shunyi District of Beijing. I live less than one km away.
Like so many things in China, the New China Exhibition Center was built big (i.e. monstrous) and fast. As a result, they didn’t give a lot of thought to things like building a taxi stand for pickup and drop-off. They did, however, build a subway stop, which was probably more reflective of how the Chinese got around at the time it was planned.
They also built parking, but not enough, and the Chinese instinctively resist parking in organized lots and certainly would only pay for parking as a last resort.
As a result, the Auto Show has historically been the focus of much contempt among the local residents and merchants. With the amount of traffic inundating the area and cars parked everywhere, including in the middle of the street, getting anywhere was next to impossible.
It’s not that they didn’t try to maintain some order in the past. No Parking signs were everywhere and there were hundreds of barriers put in place to prevent parkers from clogging the streets. Only this is China. No Parking signs are routinely ignored and barriers are inevitably moved aside by motorists who appear to assume the restriction does not apply to them.
This year, however, is quite different. There are traffic police everywhere who are diligently managing the flow of traffic and taking action against those who violate the no parking bans. I have seen, in fact, more parking tickets issued than I have seen since my arrival in China.
Perhaps most significant to me, while I was on my daily walk yesterday I noted that the temporary barriers erected to keep people from parking in the bicycle and pedestrian lanes are actually bolted into the asphalt. Unless a motorist has some industrial tools in his trunk they aren’t going to be moved.
As a result, local residents have experienced none of the congestion associated with prior auto shows. Traffic is flowing smoothly and we can actually leave our homes to go to the grocery store or grab a cup of coffee at the local Starbucks.
This is hugely symbolic. It clearly shows that the Chinese are willing to learn and to make incremental improvements in social management even if they require some time and investment. I have personally seen drivers who weren’t quite convinced that the authorities were serious find out, to their dismay, that the authorities are taking this very seriously indeed.
Another first, which is perhaps even more significant than the control of traffic and parking – there are no smoldering female models at this year’s event. In the past, every automaker, both domestic and foreign, adorned their displays with beautiful young models seductively dressed, often in rather skimpy outfits that made you wonder if they had forgotten to install the pole.
They’re all gone. All of them. And lest you conclude that the auto industry was collectively seized by feminist enlightenment, they’re gone by government decree. As I’ve noted many times there aren’t so much rules in China, which the courts can interpret as they see fit, as there are boundaries, which the government defines and interprets. And when it comes to the degree of immodesty the government felt appropriate for an international car show, the manufacturers clearly crossed the line.
In the end, I suspect, the decision to do away with the models was all part of China’s conscious and deliberate efforts both to restore traditional Chinese values and to take a responsible leadership position on the world stage. As Confucius would surely note, there is a role that world leaders must play, and he would surely suggest that role is defined by propriety and self-discipline, not attractive young girls in alluring outfits attempting to give a consumer product the illusion of sex appeal.
I admit that before my wife read the real reason in the newspaper I did wonder if part of the justification for doing away with this practice wasn’t to cut down on foot traffic. There is little doubt that many men – as they would in any country – went more for the models than the cars. My own Chinese wife, before we heard the news, had suggested that her twenty-one year-old son and I go to the show on our own, implying that none of us were really interested in the cars anyway.
I can’t say that I will miss the models. That would be politically incorrect and as the father of two daughters I take gender stereotypes and discrimination very seriously. But I am a man. And I’m not a car guy. So there is no chance I will be contributing to the congestion. Although I have to admit I’ve never been before anyway.
So, cheers to the Beijing authorities and the organizers of the Beijing Auto Show. I hope it is a great success for all concerned. As far as I’m concerned, it already has been. Once again China has shown itself ready and willing to learn and grow. And to lead by stepping up to a higher plane of appropriate behavior.
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