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Why is China’s one-car policy accepted?

Restrictions on car use have created a lot of debate in Norwegian cities. In the Chinese city Guangzhou, the introduction of an unconventional car ownership quota has met surprisingly little opposition.

Traffic in Guangzhou

Guangzhou is one of seven Chinese cities with a quota on car ownership. Photo: Colourbox.

The car is increasingly becoming a cause of local air pollution in China’s cities. There is no doubt that the Chinese Government takes this seriously, as it is now getting more and more difficult and expensive to buy a car in the city due to various public schemes.

Several Chinese cities have over the last few years introduced a quota on car ownership. This quite unusual environmental regulation means putting a limit on how many new cars can be registered in the city during a year, and that only one car can be registered locally per person. 

Thea Marie Valler
Thea Marie Valler recently handed in her Master's thesis “Curbing Consumption in China: The Vehicle Quota System in Guangzhou”.

Car quotas in Guangzhou

One of South China’s most important cities, Guangzhou, has followed Beijing and Shanghai in introducing car quota systems. This is the topic of a recent Master’s thesis at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo.

Thea Marie Valler has explored what factors are important for citizen’s attitudes towards car quotas, through interviews with residents, academics and organisations in Guangzhou.

- My research indicates that even though the policy is not very popular, it is still accepted to a surprisingly high degree by the citizens, says Valler.

In her thesis, she argues that the acceptance of the policy has to be seen in light both of basic features of Chinese society and of the policy’s specific features in Guangzhou.

Two children, two residencies – and one car?

Public control over central aspects of people’s lives is not a new thing in China. The Government does not only control how many children a family can have, but also restricts the number of residencies per family in several cities. In this respect, the "one-car policy" does not represent something radically new in Chinese politics, according to Valler.

Yet, she emphasizes that the Chinese Government often takes citizen’s opinions into account in their policy making, to avoid disturbances:

This contributes to the high degree of trust that Chinese citizens have in the government - a feature that in my research also emerged as a main factor for the car quotas in Guangzhou, she says.

Trust in the government

For Chinese citizens, as for other people, the level of trust in the government is part of shaping political attitudes. This might seem obvious, but trust appeared to be of crucial importance for the implementation of car quotas in Guangzhou for many reasons, according to Valler.

- My research showed that a good amount of trust in the government was necessary to make up for information deficits and potential corruption in the policy implementation. Those with a high degree of trust were also more likely to accept the car quota, and deemphasized the negative impacts it had on their lives. They were also more likely to think about the policy as being fair, and not being dependent on personal income level or networks, she explains.

Lottery and auction

Citizens wanting to buy a car in Guangzhou have the choice to participate in a monthly auction or to try their luck in a lottery, as this is how car quotas are allocated. The official reason for combining auction and lottery is to contribute to the dual goal of fair and efficient distribution of the quotas.

The chance of winning in the lottery is about 1 per cent each month. Still, the premise that everyone has the same chance to win contributes to justify the system, claims Valler. In addition to this comes the fact that the local government is not directly forcing you to pay for placing a bid in the auction. You can rather choose to bet on luck in the lottery:

- Several of my informants in Guangzhou expressed that they themselves choose when to buy a car, indicating that the Government, with or without intention, has managed to design a regulation that makes people retain their ownership towards this decision. Being defined as a personal choice, people are also less inclined to blame the state for any inconvenience. Are you really in a position to criticise the state for a fee you have chosen to pay yourself, she asks rhetorically.

The local Government in Guangzhou has therefore managed to introduce a car quota policy that so far has met surprisingly little resistance, according to Valler, despite being an unconventional and comprehensive transport policy.

Global consequences

- Valler's work sheds light on a highly interesting example of radical environmental regulation in practice, says Arve Hansen, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo.

Since the car tends to play such a central role in people's perceptions of progress and development, restricting car ownership is brave policymaking, even in an authoritarian setting. It is also interesting that this policy is implemented despite the country's huge car industry, Hansen points out.

He furthermore highlights how Valler's work contributes towards crucial knowledge on the regulation of consumption. China plays an increasingly important role in international environmental politics, and how the country solves its enormous transport challenges can have global ramifications.


Thea Marie Valler recently handed in her Master’s thesis “Curbing Consumption in China: The Vehicle Quota System in Guangzhou” through the Centre for Development and the Environment's Master’s program at the University of Oslo. Valler just joined NTNU’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture as a PhD Candidate, to do research on sustainable transport in urban China.

By Lise Bjerke
Published Mar. 8, 2018 11:11 AM - Last modified Mar. 9, 2018 11:24 AM