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"
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."

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."

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."

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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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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