China adores cars. Can one man persuade a nation to rent, not buy?by Megan Shank / October 17, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Shanghai’s overhead highways illuminated by LED lights
At a bus stop near Beijing’s Dashanzi art district, shoppers swayed with bulging bags. Horns swelled. Trucks rumbled. Saturday. Six o’clock. Stuck.
Beside me, my friend, Wang Shuyue, murmured in the lyrical Mandarin of the capital city: “The traffic in Beijing is really over the top.” She kicked a pile of ashy fallen leaves. The days had grown short. We waited in the dark.
Beijing, once the kingdom of bicycles, is being colonised by the car: there are now more than five million in the city. Traffic has become such a problem that in January 2011 the government enforced new licence plate restrictions to ease congestion. Now over a million Beijingers compete in a monthly lottery for the right to buy a new car. About 20,000 car registrations are up for grabs each time and unfortunate would-be buyers can end up waiting for over a year without seeing their number come up.
Our bus arrived, and we packed in among fierce elderly women with razor-sharp elbows. “I really need a car,” said Wang as a squat woman in a padded jacket boxed her in. “On the weekends, I’m stuck on the bus like this. On the weekdays, I leave my apartment at seven in the morning, stuff myself into a crowded subway and arrive exhausted before I even start work.” A stray piece of hair escaped her ponytail. She was too wedged in to brush it off her face. “At least if I had a car I could have a little more space; a little more freedom.”
It was these kinds of frustrations and desires—common to upwardly mobile young Chinese—that inspired Zhang Ruiping (or Ray Zhang, as he’s known abroad), entrepreneur and Shanghai native, to found eHi Car Rental in 2006. Motivated by a potent mixture of business ambition and social and environmental concern, Zhang is aiming to turn eHi into the largest car rental company in China.