Yesterday, I and what seemed to be at least two million of my new Chinese 朋友 (friends) visited the Shanghai auto show. As I did last week, I took the high speed train from Kunshan into Shanghai, and then got the subway from Shanghai Station to Longyang, where the expo facilities are. I went in the morning, thinking it would be less crowded, and it was --but only by degrees. By the time I got to People's Square to change subway lines, the crowd getting on the line that went to Longyang was already a herd. And when I left, the crowd coming to the expo hall was at least half again as large as it had been when I arrived.
Arriving in Longyang, I basically followed the crowd, which proceeded about a quarter mile to the Expo Center. The Expo Center is huge, with two large phalanxes of exhibit halls and some tented ones in the center that were occupied by hundreds of Chinese auto suppliers.
My first stop was the VW and GM exhibits, which were in the same hall. I later visited the Ford and Volvo areas as well. They were all massively crowded, with people standing in front of the various models and having their pictures taken, getting in and out of the cars, and inspecting the paint jobs. You had to fight to get through from one exhibit to the other. Although it's hard to compare, the crowd at the GM exhibit seemed the largest, certainly more than at the Japanese ones --I even found some open space at the Toyota area. There were a myriad of Chinese producers, as well---and their area likewise did not seem as crowded to me.
If GM is able to convert even a fraction of their audience here into buyers, it may be the key to their survival. Still, I suspect that many of the people who visited this show are not in the market for a car, at least not today. When China was first opened to western trading, it used to be said in the textile industry that "if only the Chinese would wear their undershirts an inch longer" western textile mills would not run out of business for a century---yet that dream never materialized and China never became the source of much wealth.
The story is different today, of course---Chinese auto sales are exceeding those in the U.S., at least at the moment. When I first came to China more than 25 years ago, there were far more bicycles than cars, and that's likely still true today judging from the number I still see---but there are also millions of cars on the road that were only a dream then (to buy a bicycle in 1984 could have been a year's wages or more for the average person). Well before the young fellow below, pictured in front of the Buick exhibit, is ready to drive, it's likely that China will indeed be the #1 market in the world by a long shot.