BEIJING -- Yao Li's friends told her she had to learn three skills to be a thoroughly modern person: a foreign language, computer literacy and how to drive a car. So, having mastered English and conquered a word processor, she signed up at the Dragon Well Driving School for 90 hours of lessons.
"It's a kind of fashion," said Miss Yao, a 38-year-old unemployed secretary. "I don't have a car, but it doesn't matter. Everyone is learning how to do it."
Indeed, Beijing and other big Chinese cities are seeing a driving school boom, with thousands of students paying more than a year's average wage to learn how to survive on China's chaotic roads.
Spurred on by a government policy to create an "automobile culture" in the Bicycle Kingdom, Chinese are rapidly developing a love affair with the automobile that one day may well rival America's.
Already, foreign car manufacturers are vying to create a Chinese people's car, one small enough for the country's choked roadways and inexpensive enough to be affordable. Eventually, optimistic officials predict, the automobile will be the main mode of transportation for China's 1.2 billion people.
Yet critics say that in the rush to become an automotive superpower, China's central planners have given little thought to the environmental impact of tens of millions more cars on the roads, or to the transportation needs of what is still a poor country.
"As the economy develops, it's understandable that many urban dwellers will want to buy cars, but wide-scale car ownership will sharpen the problems on China's roads and won't help the majority of people," said Ren Daren, a professor at China's Public Security University.
For those caught up in the auto euphoria, however, concerns about where or how they will drive a car are lost in the thrill of obtaining a coveted driver's license.
"I think a car must be so convenient. It's also a sign of my country's economic development," said Wang Zhengyu, a 21-year-old magazine proofreader. "It's a requirement for being a modern person."
At the Dragon Well Driving School in a north Beijing suburb, about 2,000 other students have the same idea. Some want to be taxi drivers, others think it will help them get a job or get ahead at their job. All are convinced that driving is the wave of the future.
The school, one of 217 in Beijing, charges $425 tuition for 15 hours in the classroom and 75 hours on the road -- the requirement for learning how to drive a truck, which most people choose.
An automobile driver's license requires 15 hours in the classroom and 60 on the road, but most students figure they might as well get the truck driver's license while they're at it, said school director Yang Numing. Afterward, they take a test at a nearby police station.
The high number of practice hours and a ban against student drivers on public streets means students must also make an hourlong commute to the Dragon Well school to drive on its practice range.
"About two years ago, most of our customers wanted to drive taxis, but now it's private drivers, people who want to buy a car and drive on their own," Mr. Yang said.
More than time and money
Becoming a car driver, however, requires more than time and money.
By law, individuals are not allowed to obtain a driver's license; instead, they must be sponsored by a company or organization -- almost always affiliated with the state in some way -- where the average Chinese works and lives. It is the "work unit," not the individual, that takes responsibility for traffic mishaps.
Once a license is obtained, finding a car is the next challenge. Officials report that Beijing has 840,000 vehicles but 1.2 million licensed drivers.
The cheapest sedan, produced by a Chinese-French joint venture, costs about $15,000. The most expensive is a $25,000 model produced by the Chinese No. 1 Auto Works and Volkswagen.
Imported cars are available, but with tariffs that rise to more than 100 percent, a modest car such as a Toyota Corolla sells for $50,000. The same car costs about $14,000 in the United States.
"I don't have a car, but I hope one day to be able to afford one," said Wang Kerong, a teacher at a school of hygiene. "Soon, everyone in China will be able to afford a car."
An ambitious policy paper released last year calls for the government to amalgamate small Chinese carmakers into four big companies paired with Western car manufacturers. The protectionist tariff structure will make sure the industry faces little foreign competition.
Chinese automobile production, which topped 250,000 cars last year, is expected to hit 1.5 million by 2000 and 4 million by 2010. To give an idea of how quickly China's auto culture is developing, the country had just 150,000 cars on the road in 1979, when economic reforms were getting under way. Today it has 1.4 million cars.
Exports will be few, so most sales will go to companies and to people like Mr. Wang and Miss Yao.
Some economists estimate that within five years, China will have 5 million families making between $3,750 and $6,250 a year. Given the fact that the Chinese pay almost no taxes and virtually nothing for rent or health care, that is estimated to be enough income to add 500,000 private car owners.
But while demographics and popular enthusiasm may support an auto boom, little else in China does.
Roads are a mess
China's roads, for example, are a mess. Rush hour in cities such as Beijing lasts all day, save for a two-hour break at noon. According to the State Statistical Bureau, China's auto production raced ahead at an annual rate of 17 percent between 1979 and 1993 but the road network grew by just 1.1 percent a year.
Add to this a minor oil crisis in China, which imported oil last year for the first time since World War II.
The government is already nervous about wasting hard currency PTC on oil imports, yet making cars into a "pillar of China's industrial structure," as the government's policy paper demands, could easily help turn China into the world's biggest oil importer, seriously straining world oil markets and costing the country billions of dollars a year.
Then there's pollution. All of China's cities suffer chronic pollution and acid rain. Catalytic converters are not required in China.
"A far better solution would be to promote public transportation, especially given the high concentrations of people in Chinese cities," Mr. Ren said. He noted, however, that public transportation has gotten worse in recent years, with the average speed of buses in Beijing decreasing 25 percent over the past 10 years, from 12 mph to 9 mph, making the crowded and slow bus rides all the more unpleasant.
Of China's 26 cities with more than 2 million residents, only two, Beijing and Shanghai, have subway systems: two subway lines for Beijing's 12 million residents and one for Shanghai's 14 million. No Chinese city has light rail, streetcars or bus lanes.
At the Dragon Well Driving School, however, the focus is on mastering the rules of the road -- at least long enough to pass the driving test. The consensus among students and faculty is that China's traffic woes will be cured, not hurt by the automobile.
"Maybe humans are meant to create problems for themselves," said Mr. Wang. "And then they devote their energies to solving them."