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Chinese Automobility and U.S. Rhetoric''s of Liberalization

Open Panel

Abstract

What are the ramifications of China’s recent automobilization? In the United States and some other nations, what I have called “landscapes of compulsory automobility”—the structures and spaces that facilitate and compel a society’s orientation toward the car—dominate the built environment, structuring work and everyday life. Moreover, the feelings of autonomy and self-determination driving and car ownership provide have been an important political resource, a way to embody the form of freedom most Westerners prize. This paper examines U.S./Western perceptions of Chinese automobility and its potential effects on Chinese autocracy. The ever-expanding system of highways in China is the official expression of the burgeoning car culture that is developing among the rising middle class. There is no question that China’s ascendant automobility will increase exponentially its already massive demand for oil and its carbon footprint. As other scholars examine the potential geopolitical and environmental consequences of Chinese automobility, my focus in this essay is on how this rise of a Chinese “car culture” has been heralded in the U.S. as a sign of emulation of the American template of consumption, sociality, and organization of the built environment—an index of the transition from authoritarianism to liberalism. But are these reports of driving’s political potential in China accurate? Is the subjectivity of the driver a precursor to that of the liberal citizen; or, might we see the landscapes of compulsory automobility currently being installed in China as indicative of a new, but scarcely less, autocratic, form of social control?