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Audis Trump China Patriotism as Local Brands Falter

Audis Trump Patriotism for China’s Elite as Local Brands Falter
While civil servants in the U.S., Japan and South Korea typically ride in local cars, Chinese senior leaders stand out in their preference toward foreign brands, namely Volkswagen AG’s Audi. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

China is pressuring bureaucrats to buy locally branded cars to help domestic automakers and cut lavish spending of taxpayers’ money. That’s unless you are a high-level government official with an Audi A6L.

At Beijing’s Great Hall of the People yesterday, where Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was addressing a crowd of almost 3,000 delegates, only those senior enough could park in the nearby north gate and southern courtyard. The scene: dozens of gleaming black Audi sedans waiting for their VIP occupants to emerge from the National People’s Congress.

“We should try to use Chinese cars when possible and actively advocate our officials to use them,” Guo Gengmao, governor of central Henan province, said yesterday when asked whether he will swap his Audi for a local brand. “But we should do so in a practical way and switch cars when we need to replace the old ones. Otherwise, it’s a big waste to replace cars when they’re still good to use.”

While civil servants in the U.S., Japan and South Korea typically ride in local cars, Chinese senior leaders stand out in their preference toward foreign brands, namely Volkswagen AG’s Audi. That’s not helping Chinese automakers, whose combined market share of domestic sales has declined to a four-year low.

Official Prestige

Audi has benefited from its image as the car of choice for China’s political elite by targeting state-owned company bosses and business executives. That’s helped the automaker cement its position as the top premium brand in the world’s largest vehicle market.

Led by China FAW Group Corp., maker of the Chinese Red Flag brand of luxury vehicles, local automakers are pushing to win government sales to burnish their brands.

“If the top leaders started to switch to Chinese brand cars, junior officials and bosses of state-owned companies would follow overnight and that would be a great push for state-owned automakers,” said Chi Yifeng, head of the Beijing Asian Games Village Automobile Exchange, a vehicle dealer in the capital. “People have been waiting for detailed policies of promoting domestic brands for the government fleet.”

Local automakers could use the help.

The combined market share for Chinese sedans and compact cars fell to a four-year low of 28.4 percent in 2012, according to data compiled by the state-backed China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. No Chinese brand was among the top 10 selling passenger-vehicle models last year, the data showed.

Falling Behind

Chinese carmakers risk falling further behind as competition from foreign companies intensifies. Automakers from General Motors Co. to Nissan Motor Co. are expanding their upscale brands to attract more Chinese buyers.

Audi dominated the premium vehicle segment in China with a 29.6 percent share last year, followed by Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz at 23.6 percent and 20.6 percent, respectively, according to estimates at researcher IHS Global Insight. Luxury car sales in China are forecast to surpass the U.S. as early as 2016 and equal that of Western Europe by 2020, driven by rising incomes, McKinsey & Co. said in a report this week.

Audi is stepping up efforts to transform its image as a brand for Chinese bureaucrats, a task that has taken on added urgency as Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping pushes to reduce government expenditure.

Transforming Audi

Audi says its association with the government is limited. Private individuals now account for nine out of every 10 customers in China, Luca de Meo, member of the management board at Audi, said in Beijing in January.

The Ingolstadt, Germany-based automaker last month opened its first interactive digital showroom in Asia in a Beijing shopping mall to reach out to younger consumers, and has introduced sport-utility vehicles and sports cars like the TT and R8 to expand its offerings beyond the A6 sedan.

Regardless of their influence over total sales, some Chinese officials have gone ahead to use local brands, mostly by automakers headquartered in their respective jurisdictions.

Wang Rong, Communist Party secretary of the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, started using BYD Co.’s e6 electric cars last year.

Local Switch

His counterparts in Beijing, municipal party secretary Guo Jinlong and mayor Wang Anshun, have expressed interest in replacing their Audi sedans with BAIC Motor Corp.’s Senova cars when they become available in the second quarter, according to BAIC Vice President Dong Haiyang.

The local communist party committee in Gansu province asked its senior cadres to “gradually” switch to use indigenous-brand cars, according to a Gansu Daily report carried on the government’s website. Ningxia, Hunan and Xinjiang are among other provinces that have issued similar directives.

“To make the Chinese auto brands more competitive, the industry needs support from the whole society, especially the government officials, who should be role models and use local-brand cars,” said Cheng Xiaodong, head of vehicle-price monitoring at the National Development and Reform Commission, the nation’s top economic planner.

Chinese automakers from FAW to SAIC Motor Corp. have stepped up development of premium models in anticipation the government will lend more support to help them revamp an image as producers of cheap, utilitarian cars.

Red Flag

FAW is completing a $280 million revamp for its Red Flag -- or Hongqi in Chinese -- first produced for Chairman Mao Zedong and discontinued in 1981 because of its high fuel consumption. Local governments in more than 10 provinces and cities have put in orders for Red Flag’s H7 sedan since its introduction in July last year, according to FAW’s website.

Still, local brands remain weak and mostly deal in low-priced cars, FAW Chairman Xu Jianyi said at the Congress today.

SAIC’s Roewe 950 sedan, whose prices start from 149,800 yuan ($24,065), was selected as the official car for the annual meeting of Sichuan province’s local political advisory body in January, the Shanghai-based company said on its website.

The central government issued guidelines in November 2011 lowering the budget for cars used for routine official business by 28 percent to 180,000 yuan. The Audi A6L, the best-selling luxury car in China, starts at 287,300 yuan.

The industry ministry followed three months later with a proposed list of 412 models approved for purchase by state agencies that excluded foreign brands.

Fine Print

The fine print: Those regulations don’t apply to cars used by senior government and Party officials.

Detailed rules will probably be issued after the Congress meeting this month, providing a big boost to FAW, SAIC and other local automakers, the Beijing Times reported on Feb. 28, without saying where it got the information.

“For a country with such a gigantic capacity also in terms of their own industry, they are always proud to promote their own brands,” Pan Qing, head of China region sales at Audi China, said on Jan. 31 in Beijing. “That is something that everybody can anticipate because if you look at those mature markets like Germany, Japan, Korea and the U.S, all the governments always use their own brands.”

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