In China, most people don’t start driving until they are in their late 20s. After all, China is still transitioning from a country that primarily uses bicycles and mopeds to a country that uses cars. 

Few adults can own a driver’s license, let alone a car. Many people give up and live their lives on public transportation.  

Passengers in a bus in China 

Only those lucky few who can drive their own vehicle get to showcase their winning status. It is not only those with luxury cars who can be proud. Any person who owns a car in China should feel like a winner. They jumped through hoops and beat the odds to finally drive their car.

But why is it that driving in China has that trophy status? 

Lottery Winners

Scott Meltzer / Public domainOne of the reasons people in China drive later in life is because they have to win the lottery to get a license plate. Most cities have a monthly license plate lottery or some other way to limit the number of drivers. 

You don’t even need a car to get a license plate as long as you get one within a year of winning the lottery. But the chances of winning are slim. 

Many people go years without getting a license plate. Cities like Beijing only release 38,000 license plates per year for gas vehicles and 54,000 per year for new energy vehicles. 

Since only one license is released for every 2000 petrol lottery applicants, that’s a 0.05% chance.

Some people are so desperate to get a license that they sign marriage contracts to buy license plates. They get divorced soon after as the contract is only for the purpose of transferring the plate. 

People also buy stock in companies that rent out their corporate license plates.

Personal Vehicle Fees

NIO- ES8 SUV. User3204 / CC BY (, private cars weren’t available for the masses to buy until the mid 1980s. Now China has more registered vehicles than there are people in the U.S. Since America has almost 2 cars per household on average, China still has less overall drivers than in the U.S.

However, this doesn’t diminish its exponential rise of drivers. 

With more cars come more pollution. Large cities like Beijing and Shanghai are already combatting the smog epidemic. One way that the government limits air pollution is by reducing the number of drivers on the road.

Right now, most local governments encourage drivers to get electric and hybrid cars. There are also higher taxes and fees on petrol cars, especially if the brands are foreign rather than domestic. But people still buy foreign cars; many of which have longer histories than the brands in China. They also function as a status symbol. 

Exposure to Cars

Crazy Rich AsiansPeople are inspired to own cars by the surge in car advertisements. They stoke the fire of the growing middle class’s consumerism. 

TV drama characters also advertise cars as the transportation of choice for those who are winning in life. People see them out driving in their luxury cars. They are easily able to escape city life and go on vacations. They can move luggage with them as they need, hassle free. 

People idolize this as an aspect of freedom. They also dream about being able to easily drop their kids off at school while showing off their nice cars.

The increased affinity for driving explains why “The Fast and the Furious” franchise has been so successful in China.

When Driving Isn’t Cool

However as much as the shiny aspects of car ownership are flaunted, there isn’t much talk about realistic car ownership. Many cities are crowded and the streets are the same. Many roads have not been adjusted for the higher driving population. 

This leads to traffic jams that make it more efficient for car owners to take public transportation for local travel. Car owners like most other people would rather order delivery than pick up their food from a restaurant. Some people even jokingly call food delivery services the god of food.

So ironically, owning a car does not mean that it will be your leading form of personal transportation.

Would you want to own a car in China? Comment Below!

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Sadezia Ulcena
Black, American, Caribbean, Country, and City Girl. I'm a global citizen and I want to bridge an understanding of Chinese culture with my own.
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