“Business has never been better,” the owners of a driving school in Shenzhen told me when I visited their storefront office not long ago. The school was located near the campuses of electronics giants Huawei and Foxconn, and I assumed most of their customers would be managers or skilled workers. Not so, they said. “We get all sorts of people wanting to drive, ordinary workers as well.”
The cost of a three month course including the exam was around 3,800 yuan, equivalent to two month’s wages (including overtime and bonuses) for a Foxconn production line worker. And even if they could get a license, it is very unlikely they would be able to get a car. Last year there were still only 26 million privately-owned cars in China, about one for every five drivers.
So, why would ordinary workers bother to save their money every month in order to take a driving test?
“Well, they know they will never be able to afford a deposit on an apartment, but this is at least something tangible they can show their boss, parents, girlfriend or anyone else they want to impress,” one skilled worker at Foxconn explained.
Being able to drive is just as valuable a skill in China as speaking English or writing software, he said, it is something that opens doors for you. It is a sign of ambition and foreword thinking, he added.
Other factory workers claimed that getting a license in Shenzhen would eventually help them get a Shenzhen urban residency card, or at the very least make them feel more like they belonged to the city and not the countryside.
And eventually, these license holders might actually get a car. As Hong Kong trade unionist, Lee Cheuk-yan noted in a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club recently, in South Korea, auto workers first went out on strike in the 1980s to demand higher wages, but ten years later, they went out on strike again, this time to demand parking spaces at the plant.