Beijing, November 26:

For Xie Bing, a 24-year-old physician from the northern Chinese port city of Tia-njin, one factor outweighs all others as she prepares to buy her first car — safety.

“I don’t know too much about cars but it definitely has to be safe as I plan to drive to work every day,” said the fashionably dressed woman as she toured the biennial Auto China 2006 exhibition in Beijing. “Commuting in a big car makes no sense to me,” she added, belying most ideas people might have about the fondness for conspicuous consumption among China’s newly rich.

It is not that long ago that young and affluent Chinese did indeed behave as proper nouveaux riches when they went shopping for cars. Autos were regarded in China mostly as status symbols for the government officials and business executives who were the only ones that could afford them.

Buyers did not care so much about price, but above all the car had to be large. The larger, the better.

Times have changed, and in recent years the car has moved from being a luxury item in China to a true mass product. According to a report published by the China Automobile Dealers Association, car sales in the first 10 months of this year rose by 25.7 per cent year-on-year to 5.8 million and are expected to exceed seven million for the full year.

As much larger segments of society buy cars, the vehicles no longer become signals of extreme wealth and are instead seen as means of transportation, with all the accompanying practical requirements. “Chinese consumers are becoming more rational,” said an official at the China Automobile Dealers Association.

Unsurprisingly, rational consumers go for safe products, as statistics from China appear to confirm. Complaints about safety made up by 22.9 per cent of all co-mplaints about car quality in this year’s third quarter.