China’s unrivaled offline strength gets double-click as Auto Shanghai 2021 kicks off after Boao Forum
Published: Apr 19, 2021 10:11 PM
Boao Forum Photo: VCG

Boao Forum Photo: VCG

An Arcfox electric car equipped with Huawei's intelligent automotive system at Huawei's booth in the 2021 Auto Shanghai. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

An Arcfox electric car equipped with Huawei's intelligent automotive system at Huawei's booth in the 2021 Auto Shanghai. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Revolving around streams of visitors exuding enthusiasm for the world of the latest foreign lineups and indigenous auto innovations, the 19th International Automobile Industry Exhibition (Auto Shanghai 2021) kicked off on Monday in China's financial hub Shanghai. 

The 10-day event, the first of the world's top auto shows to run normally this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, apparently inspires excitement in the Chinese economy's enviable robustness even as the entire world remains glued to the Sunday opening of the 2021 Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), the world's largest in-person gathering so far this year.

Bathing in boisterous talk and laughter that reverberated around the exhibition venue, executives of some top foreign automakers interviewed by the Global Times couldn't wait to share the exhilaration of real-world exhibits and stories of their trend-defying China successes. 

More strikingly, the grand event, with the presence of domestic auto disruptors, notably Huawei, seems to have instantly turned on the buying power of consumers in the world's largest automobile market. 

Unrivaled offline strength 

Auto Shanghai 2021, one of the world's biggest auto trade fairs, began with media days on Monday and Tuesday prior to its official start on Wednesday and runs through April 28, with about 1,000 global auto manufacturers and suppliers showcasing their newest models and intelligent solutions.

The event follows strict quarantine requirements, with all participants requested to submit negative COVID-19 nucleic acid test reports within seven days. They will also have their health codes combed through and temperatures checked before being allowed entry, the Global Times learned. 

As a prelude to the event that will be open to the public on Wednesday, the first two media days could give a glimpse to how fiery the trade show is set to be.

Five to six visitors were seen lining up for a hands-on experience of some popular vehicle models and some carmakers implemented reservations and visitor limitations that resulted in waiting lines of a long as 10 meters, as Global Times reporters noticed on the spot.   

The auto fervor is arguably another testament to the economy's in-person robustness.

At a press conference heralding the start on Sunday of the four-day BFA event in Boao, a seaside resort in South China's Hainan Province, BFA Secretary General Li Baodong said 4,000-plus participants have registered offline for the 2021 edition of the event, making it the world's largest in-person conference so far this year. 

"The auto show attendance really makes [me] happy, as China is [the only place] worldwide where [physical] auto shows can still happen," Leon Li, director of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Greater China region, told the Global Times on Monday on the sidelines of the auto show. 

It feels like each exhibitor that jumped on the bandwagon of the Shanghai event has brought their best lineups to Shanghai, Li said.

The government has done a great job in controlling and preventing the spread of the virus, Francesco Scardaoni, Lamborghini's Asia Pacific head, told the Global Times on Monday.

"We didn't stop in China in 2020. China was the only country that allowed on-site shows like car shows while the rest of the world just stopped. We have been able to carry on with physical events, but also went ahead with digital marketing activities," Scardaoni said.

Foreign automakers bullish 

For a slew of upscale foreign automobile manufacturers scrambling for air amid the pandemic, the Chinese market is a beacon of hope, according to some luxury-auto makers. 

"China is the only country that is witnessing an amazing recovery in terms of economy and is the only country that has been able to go from a minus 6 percent GDP during the pandemic to 8 percent GDP," Scardaoni said. "Only China can do this. It's very surprising."

The Chinese economy recorded an 18.3 percent expansion in the first quarter, official data showed on Friday, the fastest in three decades. The economy is expected to grow by roughly 9 percent for the whole year, well above the official goal of more than 6 percent, experts said.

The economy's power is reflected in the Italian automaker's orders during the first three months in 2021, "which was amazing," Scardaoni said, noting the trend of orders remains high and will keep going into 2022.

In 2020, orders in the Chinese market doubled compared 2019 and based on the figure it predicted that China will become its second single largest market in 2021, he said. 

Lamborghini launched three new cars at this edition of the Auto Shanghai, including the global premiere of its super car model, Essenza SCV12. 

In the words of Li, since the second half of last year, almost everyone in the luxury car market as part of the luxury goods sector has been met with surprise, as China's consumer market has rebounded at a pace that's more significant than almost everyone had expected.

The second half of 2020 was probably the strongest second half on record for the Chinese market, according to Li, and the British luxury auto maker delivered its best first quarter in the Chinese market over the past quarter, with sales accounting for nearly 30 percent of the world's total.

"As far as I'm concerned, there are three to four customers who are very interested in each of our models on display."

Rolls Royce brought its Phantom Tempu collection, limited to only 20 cars globally, with seven in the Chinese mainland, to the Shanghai show, with preorders starting Monday noon. 

The past year was a record for Bentley Motors in China. "We had [a] nearly 50 percent increase over 2019 … as China contained that crisis very well, probably the best worldwide. So the economy rebounded very quickly and with it also the demand," Bernd Pichler, managing director of Bentley Motors Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Macao, told the Global Times on Monday.

"The first quarter of this year already doubled the sales of last year's first quarter. So we are very confident that we can continue on this growth path, because we have the tremendous support of our brand ambassadors or customers in the Chinese market," Pichler said.

Last year, defined from the sales region, the entire Americas was slightly ahead of the Chinese market, but China would probably be the most successful market for Bentley in the world this year, he added, expecting to see yet another record in the Chinese market. 

Indigenous disruptors 

Other than the hope-filled chorus of foreign automakers, disruptive innovations from Chinese firms, especially non-traditional players, have ignited the zeal of visitors and a multitude of prospective buyers. 

Chinese high-tech giant Huawei arguably made the most compelling headlines Monday, with its intelligent driving system being one of the show's biggest attractions that has lured long lines of visitors eager to try out the Huawei-enabled driving experience.

Huawei's smart driving system is suitable for all road conditions, including the handling of traffic lights and making turns, which remains a mission impossible for Tesla, a staffer at the Huawei stall told the Global Times on Monday. 

The Chinese tech giant's smart driving system has already achieved L4 capacities, according to the staffer. That's only secondary to level 5 autonomy.

Vehicles with the system will be mass-produced starting this year, the staffer said, declining to go into specifics. 

The Seres Huawei Smart Selection SF5, launched by Huawei and Chinese electric vehicle startup Seres, also made its debut at the Shanghai show. The vehicle became available on Huawei's Chinese website on Monday. Coming in at four colors, the new model will hit the market on Wednesday priced at 216,800-246,800 yuan ($33,299-$37,906), and it will be on show across Huawei's flagship stores across the country starting Wednesday, the Global Times learned.  

The Huawei hype that has many people voicing interest in possibly opting for a Huawei car on Chinese social media coincided with a nearly 6 percent rally in self-driving car stocks which led the A-share rebound on Monday.

Baidu also announced plans on Monday to have Apollo pre-installed on at least one mass-produced model each month in the second half of the year. 

In another sign of homegrown innovation, Chinese electric vehicle maker XPeng Motors was in the limelight on Monday with its announcement of plans to launch its next generation of flight vehicles at the end of 2021, which is likely to have more functions and may experiment carrying passengers.