Pictured above: Me, Li Luying (黎璐英) and Li Qiang (李强 ) , taking a break from the road near Huaihua (怀化)
Three cars roll down out of the Hunan countryside, their lines bold and new. Golden hour sunlight warms three fresh coats of wax. The leader, bluebird against the unblemished white of its followers, pumps pop music out through an open trunk.
Pulling off at the crest of a hill, Li Qiang (李强 ) basks for a moment in the smell of new plastic and fresh vinyl. Then he climbs out, music still blasting, and walks back to meet the others. In bold stick-on characters, the sides of the cars read “节能环保EV” （jíenéng huánbâo, Energy-saving, environment-protecting EV/Electric Vehicle).
The three drivers exchange looks and turn to watch the approaching cyclist struggle uphill. Li yelps a half-hearted “jīayóu!” (加油，lit. add oil, similar to come on) and then they wait in silence until he approaches. Shoeshine untouched by the dust of the road, they stand straight and with a premeditated casualness.
After a moment to catch his breath, the cyclist accepts an offering of water and snacks and leans on his handlebars. “What is this, an advertisement?” he asks.
“Exactly,” comes the response, with a note of pride. “We sell EVs downtown.”
Huaihua’s (怀化）Zotye electric car dealership is small, only big enough for three cars, but it’s in a nice part of the city. Many of the provincial cities of West China have grown up from villages in the past 10 years, rolling down their valleys until the old farms are all paved over. The top of the valley is usually still the commercial center, home to malls and restaurants and young urbanites. As the valley widens out and down, the city filters through kilometers of auto shops, repair stores, and near where the pavement ends, truck stops and distribution centers.
The dealership feels far from the Hondas and Fords that line the city’s outskirts, planted as it is among iPhones and designer goods. We sit down in the air conditioning, and I ask how long they’ve been in business. Li thinks a moment, fingers twitching as he counts. “Twenty…twenty-two days,” he pronounces. “My dear friend from college called me up a few months ago, and I wanted to experience life in the city. It seemed like a good opportunity, so here I am!” He smiles wide.
Founded in 2005 in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Zotye Auto has quickly grown to be a nationwide competitor in China. Though it still lingers around the back of the pack of mass-market auto producers, overall sales were up 66% in 2014, and EVs increased from 220 units to more than 7,000. In the first half of 2015, Zotye ranked second among Chinese EV producers, having more than doubled its 2014 sales over the same period.
Despite its rapid growth, Zotye is not without detractors. Like most Chinese auto industry leaders, the company has repeatedly produced cars that appear to be blatant, unauthorized copies of European car brands’ designs.
What’s more, it may be years before EVs are effective in terms of cutting pollutants. China’s coal use dropped off for the first time last year, but it still gets well over half of its energy from coal. Except for areas with a high or rapidly growing density of clean energy production, EVs in China have the capacity to produce more CO2 equivalent than gas-powered vehicles over their lifespans.
Nevertheless, Zotye is rapidly expanding into the EV market. Li’s voice is firm and assured when I ask how he sees the future of Chinese EVs. “More and more they are the future of cars, in China and the world. For young people in China, we’ve grown up with constant pollution, and it’s just too heavy for us. We want to do what we can to lift the smog.” With coal-powered generators moving increasingly out of cities and into more remote regions of the country, EVs may indeed have a role in reducing urban pollution and its 4,000 person/day death toll. (But not necessarily)
The cars themselves are a bit like precocious toddlers. Li insists on a future of super-fast charging stations and long-range EVs, but admits that for Chinese owners, the infrastructure just hasn’t arrived. “They keep saying that they’re going to install chargers at the gas stations, but so far they haven’t. A road trip in your electric car is not feasible in 2015, but I hope soon people will realize the potential.” With Zotye’s EVs temporarily stuck at ranges between 150 and 200km, range anxiety rules and their market is limited.
Li doesn’t show any signs of wavering. He lives in a China that has seen Under the Dome, a documentary on pollution in China that was seen by 175 million people in the two days before its removal from Chinese internet. In this world, young Chinese seem ready to jump at any possibility of cleaner skies.
“Pollution is something that affects people all over the world,” Li says. “Everyone can have a part in defending against it.”