Shanghai Auto Show 2015: No babes, more chaos

Security worked flawlessy

Security worked flawlessly. Very little else did

I typed most of this in the lounge at the Seoul airport, flying back to Tokyo on the cheap from the Shanghai Auto Show. Serious work from Shanghai was impossible, due to a Chinese firewall that is higher and sturdier than ever. And that was just one of the problems. Be warned that that this review of the Shanghai Auto Show has a lot about the latest rice cookers, and very little about the latest cars. For a more serious version, click here.

Male models are still allowed

Male models are still allowed

The first problem was to get in. I have been to the Beijing and Shanghai shows (they alter between the cities) since 2008. Registration always was a mess, and it always worked out, somehow, with a lot of yelling, they are true Chinese auto shows, after all. This time in Shanghai, the system collapsed.

Days before the show, many A-list journalists did not have their journalist visas approved. Some finally received it two days before departure. Some did not. For many, their applications for show passes got stuck in the on-line system. If that happened in the years before (it always did) then you sent emails, you called, and it worked. This time, emails went unanswered. The press office of the premiere show in the world’s largest auto market stopped picking up the phone in the week before the show. I received my pass the Chinese way, with guanxi.

China catches up with the West as far as booth babes go

China catches up with the West as far as booth babes go

Auto shows are windows into the auto industry, and the window of the Shanghai show opens inward, into a Chinese courtyard. Bothersome laowei journalists are discouraged, and tolerated at best, if they have the temerity to arrive. China’s auto exports are negligible, therefore, few Chinese carmakers worry too much about projecting a better image abroad. Only the select few realize that exports could be higher if the image would be better. But then, these days many Chinese are warier of Made in China than most people abroad.

That was the reason for the rice cooker in my bag. Going from Japan to China, you must have a high-end Japanese rice cooker in the bag. Zojirushi appears to be the gold standard of rice cookers, next down is Tiger. I carried a Zojirushi. “Damn, I should have gotten you the 220 Volt version,” I facepalmed, as I, having arrived in Shanghai, handed over the goods to my trusted former sidekick in China. Japan is at 100 volts. China is 220. “Oh, no,” the sidekick exclaimed. “It must be original Japanese. If it’s 220 Volt, then it’s made for China, and they use cheaper parts!” The distrust of Made in China products runs so deep that well-to-do Chinese raise their babies on foreign milkpowder, brought in from Hong Kong. For their family, groceries bought at the City Shop imported foods chain are put on the kitchen table from Ikea. The appetite for imported good is so ravenous that Hong Kong had to limit milk powder exports to four pounds per person and day.

Unsuccessful import

Unsuccessful import

China’s tastes for cars reflect this. The roads are firmly occupied by foreign makes. Custom duties, and pornographic mark-ups, make true imports very expensive. Grudgingly, a foreign car is bought that is Made in China, but by one of the many foreign joint ventures. Eight out of ten sedans sold in China carry a foreign brand. With an indigenous make, you out yourself as a pauper.

Close to a third of the world’s automotive output is made and sold in China, and the industry suffocates under its own mass production: In nearly every large city, the roads are hopelessly clogged. The collapse of traffic is the true reason for the curbs on car buying in major Chinese cities. Greenwashed, the curbs are sold as an initiative to curb pollution.

EVs are back

EVs are back

This year, the Shanghai show moved to a brand-new gigantic venue west of Shanghai’s (mostly domestic) Hongqiao airport, an area “convenient for exactly nobody,” as Aston Martin’s current (and Tesla’s and Nissan’s former) chief communicator Simon Sproule quipped. One would think that with a completely new center, for which square miles of dilapidated houses were bulldozed, ingress and egress was finally worked out. It wasn’t. On Sunday, a day before the show opened to the media only, traffic came to a standstill around the exhibition center. On the following days, one had the choice between arriving 2 hours early for a 9 am appointment, or to arrive two hours late.

The Chevrolet FNR: Wheels don't turn

The Chevrolet FNR: Wheels don’t turn

As many as 40 electric, well, “new-energy” cars will go on sale in China this year—triple the number available two years ago, Bloomberg writes. Bloomberg also writes that most of them are just for show, “to please the government.” After they nearly went extinct at previous shows, dummy EVs, plugged into dummy charging stations, are back in force. Combining two trends into one mock-up, GM showed the Chevrolet FNR (as in “Find new Roads”) self-driving EV concept car at its Sunday pre-party at the Cadillac plant in Pudong. “It’s completely plastic,” whispered the man in the seat next to me. “Look, the wheels don’t even turn.” The didn’t. The tepid take-up of EVs cannot compensate for three really big trends in China: 1. SUVs. 2. Lots of horse power. 3. SUVs with lots of horse power.

Johan on stage

Johan on stage

The highlights of the GM-pre-party were a full symphony orchestra, and Cadillac’s new rock star Johan de Nysschen. “Is he laying on the South-African accent a bit thicker than before?”whispered the man in the seat next to me. It definitely gave Cadillac a more worldlier flair than Mary Barra’s Midwestern twang.

Auto Shanghai 2015 -20 - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

Happy; Andy and Simon

Meanwhile at the Aston Martin booth, former Johan de Nysschen colleagues Andy Palmer and Simon Sproule were happier than I ever had seen them.

Auto Shanghai 2015 -21 - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

I will fix Aston Martin, I swear

Andy swore to me to turn Aston Martin around, prettier than ever.

Isolated Mueller

Isolated Mueller

At Volkswagen’s pre-party, embattled CEO Martin Winterkorn was in attendance. Next day, at the official press conference, Wiko was a non-show. His supposed replacement Wolfgang Mueller sat there, and everybody kept as distance. You never know.

For the first time, provocatively dressed models are banned from the show, a fact that must have received more publicity than the models did in prior years. The ban holds. Conservatively dressed beautiful ladies no longer pose, they hand out breath mints. General Motors has the show’s tallest and longest-legged breathmint-distributors. In a Shanghainese Streisand-effect, the media now has the presence of mind to focus on the absence of hot bodies. I was interviewed at least three times by major Chinese newspapers to gauge my reaction to the lack of ladies. A few distraught photographers, who did not get the memo, scoured the halls for the 2015 edition of “The girls of the Shanghai Auto Show.” If you see pictures of girls in hotpants in front of the show logo: This was outside talent, smuggled-in by the photographer, and quickly removed before the ample security could intervene.

Fake babes

Fake babes

The New Millennial journalist has to do triple-duty, must tweet, and Facebook-post in real time before the actual story is written. Not so at the Shanghai Auto Show: Twitter and Facebook are blocked, sometimes in a water torture kind of way: You see the first page of Facebook, but not the next, you can post, but it doesn’t show. Travel to China, if you ever want to experience how dependent we have become on Facebook, Twitter, and especially Google. So the waitress in the quaint restaurant doesn’t understand you? No problem, Google Translate to the rescue. Darn, no longer working. The few tweets you see are smuggled out, via a VPN, but not for long. Empowered by technology supplied by Cisco and Blue Coat, your VPN is hunted down automatically, and it stops working after a day, or earlier.

China isn’t just the world’s largest auto market, it is also the most networked country. China had 649 million internet users by the end of 2014, with 557 million of those using handsets to go online, Reuters said. They are locked into a huge electronic cage, golden-shielded from the interesting parts of the outside world. What is not blocked is so slow that the bytes seem to drop out of the line one-by-one. As long as they are insulated from brutal global realities, China’s engineers, designers, and independent automakers will have a hard time catching up.