Economy

Top German Automakers Take A Designed-For-China Approach

Since 2000, China's car industry has grown twentyfold. And to maintain strength in the market, German carmakers are creating designs exclusively for Chinese sensibilities.

Ma Jun's "Porcelain Porsche"
Sun Qizi

BEIJING — What can German car companies learn from Chinese artists?

The German Embassy to China decided to find out during a recent seminar with Chinese sculptor Ma Jun and German design directors from Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, who are designing cars especially for the Chinese market.

Ma's work Porcelain Car was displayed in front of the German Embassy, attracting many spectators and flashing lights. The car, with the body shape of a Buick, was made of porcelain and printed with glaring colors and patterns in the Qing Dynasty style. Ma views the work as a conversation about traditional Chinese culture and the West's modern industrial civilization.

"Whereas porcelain presents a static beauty, the car represents speed and force," Ma says. "When speed is solidified in porcelain, it thus constitutes a conflict of beauty."

Ma Jun's "Porcelain Cars" — Photo: Official website

When German cultural attaché Enrico Brandt discovered Ma's work in Beijing, he decided to invite him for the automotive design dialogue. The auto industry is an important part of German culture, and the quality and performance of German cars are well esteemed in China.

According to Reuters, German cars sales have had a very good year in China. While sales of Volkswagen's premium Audi AG grew 77% in the first three months of 2014, sales for both BMW and Mercedes-Benz doubled. From 2009 to 2013, German car sales have increased from 1.6 to 3.7 million, accounting for 23% of China's total automobile market.

While the German Automobile Industry Association predicts that passenger car sales in China will increase 6% and reach about 19 million in 2015, the entire European market is predicted to have a growth of just 2% totaling 12.2 million. And that's optimistic, based on the economies of France and Italy growing as expected.

A worthy focus

Since 2000, the Chinese car market has grown twentyfold. The contrast with Europe suggests huge potential in China.

And that's not lost on German car companies. Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and BMW have all set up design studios in China and are attaching greater importance to the aesthetic sensibilities and lifestyle demands of Chinese customers.

"From an elementary point of view, Chinese people always want the best," says Steffen Kohl, head of advanced global design at Mercedes-Benz. "As for the details, Chinese buyers tend to require more in added value such as the appearance, the line and the pattern. They want the car to have a Chinese look but at the same time be cosmopolitan."

Daimler in China — Photo: Robert Basic

Simon Loasby, design director of Volkswagen's studio in China, says that while a car is a necessity in much of Europe, it's a status symbol in China. "This makes a huge difference," he says. "Chinese people also have a preference for gold and crimson colors. It's like the Chinese temples, which are much richer in colors than the European churches."

Meanwhile, Gerhard Steinle, head of BMW's Shanghai desgin studio, believes that premium cars are more popular in China because "it gives the owner more face."

Based on this understanding of the Chinese market, German automakers have launched many series with champagne and gold colors, as well as versions with extended wheelbases. "A lot of our cars are designed especially for the Chinese market," Loasby says. "Extended cars don't sell much in Europe, whereas it's very popular here because Chinese hosts believe that this is a good way to entertain their guests. Besides a lot of Chinese customers have chauffeurs, so they prefer this type of car."

Photo: BMW China

Bu Ma believes that when these companies design cars for China, it's not just about catering to the market but also about exploring a deep cultural sense. "While promoting their own culture, German carmakers should also help China to find a unique aesthetic of its own, instead of a superficial imagination of Chinese tastes or a simple interpretation of Chinese elements," he says. "Design based on an in-depth understanding of Chinese philosophy and aesthetics will obtain more respect and value. After all, it's design that leads the market."

The German designers agree with Ma's point. Because it takes five to seven years from design to mass production, designers should discover the future needs of customers and provide solutions. "Apart from the studio, we have a marketing department as well as scouts who are our sources of information," Loasby says.

Mercedes-Benz claims to have designers of various nationalities, including some Chinese. "We have also set up auto design prizes in universities," Kohl says, some of which are exclusive to Chinese colleges.

Nevertheless, German designers also have their own considerations. "First, we are the leading automobile brands from the West," Kohl says. "We have to research and understand the differences, aesthetic preferences and appeal between the Chinese and the European markets. We have to know how, but also why, so that Chinese customers are better served. But we won't change Mercedes-Benz or BMW as such. There's simply a balance to be found."

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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