A Toyota Camry isn't usually the type of car that turns heads. It certainly isn't considered a flashy ride on the streets of Beijing, where Audis, BMWs and Mercedes SUVs dominate where three-wheeled rickshaws once ruled.
So when David Mulroney, Canada's ambassador to China, posted online photos of his official car – a silver Camry hybrid – the reaction from the Chinese Internet was something close to shock. Especially when he explained that even cabinet ministers in Canada only have a budget of $32,400 for their official car.
"A vice-minister in Beijing drives the Audi A6, which costs over 500,000 yuan (about $80,000), and they also have a full-time driver. A local township official might drive a Benz," wrote one of more than 1,100 people who responded to the ambassador's posting on the Canadian Embassy's official Weibo site.
(Weibo is a Twitter-style microblogging site that's wildly popular in China. The Canadian Embassy joined the fray back in June, usually – but not always – sticking to safe topics like promoting tourism in Canada.)
"Ambassador Ma," wrote another Weibo user, addressing Mr. Mulroney by his Chinese name, Ma Dawei, "A Chinese mid-level cadre wouldn't lay an eye on your car!"
The writer was exaggerating, but only a little. When driving recently with a Beijing cabbie that I've known for years, I asked him to decode the social strata of the Chinese capital city's roads (which now hosts about five million vehicles, with thousands of shiny new vehicles adding to the gridlock every day).
Here's Driver Zhao's guide to figuring out who's stuck beside you in a Beijing traffic jam:
Toyota sedan – Driven by putongren. Ordinary people. Not so ordinary that they have to use public transport or ride a bicycle, mind you.
Mercedes SUV – Driver Zhao presumes someone who drives one of these ubiquitous (and always black) vehicles is a laoban. The word means "boss," but in this case laoban can mean anyone who recently come into cash and wants to show it off.
Buick GL8 minivan – Wildly popular in China (though discontinued in North America), these vans aren't for soccer moms. To Driver Zhao, someone driving a Buick GL8 is a " xiao laoban," or little boss. Someone who can't yet afford the Mercedes. Just as often, the driver is a professional and the passengers are Western expatriate families with kids.
Audi A6 – Weibo had it bang on, it's the automobile of choice for the Chinese bureaucrat. Seeing an Audi A6 in traffic means you're idling beside part of the country's power structure. As The New York Times put it , the A6's "slick frame and invariably tinted windows exude an aura of state privilege, authority and, to many ordinary citizens, a whiff of corruption." (The Beijing government says there are 62,000 official cars in the city, a figure that seems far too low. The state-run CCTV television station reported last year that the real figure is closer to 700,000.)
Humvees or Ferraris – Driver Zhao says the only people arrogant enough to drive one of these on Beijing's streets are the well-off children of top government officials. As evidence of that, I once saw a bright yellow Humvee rip the wrong way through traffic in Beijing's busy Sanlitun bar district, before proceeding to drive through a red light without so much as tapping the brakes. At least three policemen witnessed the same scene, but seemed to conclude from the driver's brazen behaviour that he was too powerful to be stopped.
Bo Guagua, the 23-year-old son of rising Communist Party star Bo Xilai, has famously been spotted driving a red Ferrari (while courting the daughter of former U.S. ambassador-turned-former U.S. presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, no less).
All of which provided kindling for the debate over Mr. Mulroney's relatively modest wheels. Even the Global Times, a newspaper closely affiliated with the Communist Party, used the online discussion of the official Canadian Camry to raise the sensitive topic of government officials and their cars.
"Government vehicle issue in China is a mess, and our government is the most unwilling in the world to talk about it," Ye Qing, a member of the National People's Congress, China's parliament told the paper. Mr. Ye has in the past argued that the country could save more than $150-million a year by capping official spending on cars the way Canada and other countries do.
Mr. Mulroney told the Global Times that he had decided to post about his official car on Weibo because "we get a lot of questions about how we operate at the embassy, what rules govern our work, and how much money we spend."
As for the online controversy he generated in China? "I have to answer to Canadian expectations. What happens to China is for Chinese people to decide."