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Cars October 15, 2012 | 0 Comments

Veiled promises: Can Chinese cars save Arab women?

Carwash, China style.

Carwash, China style.

China has a spotty human rights record, but when it comes to women – the country is one of the world’s most liberal. China’s girl power is especially evident in the local car industry, where women enjoy special privileges and attention. But overseas, Chinese car brands are increasingly active in markets where women lack basic rights, including the right to drive. This creates an opportunity for China to export liberal attitudes (…and cars) and gain some badly-needed soft power and prestige. 

Women have always been central to the development of the People’s Republic, starting with Mao’s declaration that they “hold half the sky” and culminating in his wife’s shenanigans during the Cultural Revolution. These days, women occupy senior positions in government, although still not enough. When it comes to driving, Chinese attitudes are especially liberal: Local women enjoy dedicated extra-wide parking lots, they are responsible for steering strategic national vessels, and they are free to make a living washing cars in a bikini. In fact, the Chinese cars industry has been so liberal that the government had to step in and regulate the way scantily-clad women are featured in marketing events.

The main export markets for Chinese cars are in Asia, Africa, Russia, the Middle East and South America and local brands like Great Wall, Geely, Chery, BYD,  and JAC are increasingly focused on the Muslim and Arab world. Great Wall was one of the first Chiense brands to target Arabian buyers, starting with truck sales in 1998 and introducing SUVs in the mid-naughties. Geely was also an early mover into Arab markets, setting up shop in Syria in 2003. From January to August this year, the company exported over 24,000 cars to Arabian markets, accounting for about 43% of its overall exports. Out of which, about 10,000 units were sold to the Saudi Arabia (here, in Chinese) and  an additional 13,000 cars were sold to to Iraq. Geely is currently active in over 20 Muslim countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Kuwait. Later this year, Geely plans to launch its sedan cars in Egypt, where Chery already sold tens of thousands of cars over the past two years.

At home, Chinese officials may be worried about risque marketing techniques, but in the Arab world, the state of women poses much greater limitations to the growth of China’s automotive industry: In Saudi Arabia, women have limited freedom of movement and are practically not allowed to drive; in Iraq, the new government only recently gave women rights over their property and person; and in Egypt, the new Islamic Government stokes new fears among the country’s relatively-liberated women. The oppression of women prevents Chinese brands from using their standard marketing techniques and locks millions of consumers out of the automotive market.

The alignment of China’s close relations with Arab governments and its strong interest in developing domestic industry provides the Middle Kingdom with a unique opportunity to throw its weight for a good cause. With government support, Chinese brands should push the country’s sexy marketing culture into new markets, in Arabia and beyond. For Arab women, it would mean more freedom. For Arab men, it might give a whole new meaning to the term “China’s peaceful rise”.

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