China’s car culture is brand new, of course, and virtually every Chinese on the road today learned to drive within the last 10 years. Sometimes there are no rules of the road, driver’s license tests are almost laughable, and Chinese people’s ability to read maps is nonexistent. Give rural Chinese people a map and they will turn it upside down wondering what it is and how it works. “In China, it’s not such a terrible thing to be lost.... China is the kind of country where you constantly discover something new, and revelations occur on a daily basis,” writes Hessler. “The place changes too fast; nobody can afford to be overconfident in his knowledge.... Nobody has today’s China figured out.” So, rather than attempting to paint China with broad-brush generalizations, he chronicles the history and social context of life along its roads in order to illuminate the dramatic changes of the present.
For example, in the 1940s, when the U.S. Army sent jeeps to the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek fighting the Japanese and the advancing Red Army, the vehicles suffered an inordinate number of accidents. They were designed for the right side of the road, but the Chinese drove on the left. So the U.S. Army proposed that all of China switch sides, and Generalissimo Chiang agreed. This gave a leg up to U.S. automakers, which rushed to enter China when trade opened decades later — beginning with the saga of American Motors and its Beijing Jeep in 1979, the textbook case for failed foreign partnerships.
Hessler follows that story to the origin of China’s auto industry: A single Chinese engineer went to England and bought equipment from an outdated Ford factory. Then he went to Spain to acquire designs from a struggling Volkswagen subsidiary making a car similar to the Jetta. He secretly put them all together in China’s poor Anhui province, contravening Chinese laws that forbid new car makers to enter the market (which the company later was able to have changed), and suddenly China had its very own national car: the Chery (Qirui). Chery Automobile Company is now China’s largest domestic automaker, drawing the ire of foreign rivals for continuing to copy their designs on the cheap.
In a section titled “The Factory,” Hessler chronicles a similar episode that unfolds before his eyes in the southern province of Zhejiang. A factory that makes the small metal rings that connect the straps of women’s bras has sprung up in the new town of Lishui along one of China’s brand-new, industrialization-creating toll roads. Its machinery was made according to specifications provided by the employee of another factory, who committed the parts to memory while at work and drew them when he returned home each evening. After a fair bit of tweaking the replica, the new factory became profitable — and then endured copycats of its own. It’s a problem that many a Western manufacturer has faced in China, but as Hessler explains, it is part of the culture and the nature of China’s current stage of industrialization.
If the reader is tempted to believe that the nature of China is to copy rather than to advance, Hessler reminds us about Francis Cabot Lowell in the 1800s. “Back then, the United States was the upstart society, and the British carefully guarded the designs for their water-powered Cartwright looms,” he writes. “But Lowell visited the mills of Manchester under false pretenses and he used his photographic memory to rebuild the machines in Massachusetts, where his company became the foundation for the American textile industry.” The implications for China’s future are clear.