China’s vehicle sales grew 9.8% to 13.24 million in the first half of 2023, partly driven by a low base in the same period last year, an industry group announced on Tuesday. It left its 3% growth projection for the full year intact.
The growth was artificially high, especially in the second quarter due to the impact of the country’s zero-COVID lockdowns last year, and despite the price war launched by automakers earlier this year to gain market share.
“After experiencing the impact of the first quarter’s promotion drive and market price fluctuations, driven by the central and local government’s policies to promote consumption … the market demand has gradually recovered,” Xu Haidong, a spokesperson from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) told a news conference.
In the deal, automakers including BYD and Tesla pledged to avoid “abnormal pricing,” but CAAM withdrew it on Saturday, saying it violated China’s antitrust law.
The first half’s sales data covered the country’s new energy vehicles, which include full electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as exports.
Sales of such electrified vehicles grew by 44.1% to 3.75 million units, accounting for 28% of the market despite the withdrawal of a subsidy program at the end of last year. Buyers can still enjoy a sales tax exemption, which had been due to expire at the end of the year — but in an announcement last month, the government unveiled a USD 72.3 billion package of tax breaks that will extend the exemption and other incentives until the end of 2025 to stimulate sales.
China’s market for new energy vehicles in the first half of 2023 was led by BYD, which sold 1.26 million units and accounted for 33.5% of market share. Tesla clocked in second with 477,000 electrified vehicles for a 12.7% market share.
BYD emerged as the country’s bestselling car brand in the first quarter of 2023, overtaking Volkswagen, the country’s long-term market leader. The Shenzhen-based automaker and other local brands outsold foreign car brands for the first time in April. Their market share at the end of June stood at 53%.
The growth was fueled by new energy vehicle brands, which were better than foreign brands in delivering what new and tech-savvy Chinese consumers want at a price they could afford, according to a July 5 report by the New York-headquartered consulting firm AlixPartners.
“Chinese automakers have now passed the tipping point of global relevance,” said Stephen Dyer, the firm’s representative in Shanghai.
Chinese brands have further expanded abroad, also driven by electrified vehicles. Total exports were 2.14 million units — up 76% — during the first six months of the year, due to aggressive pushes by major automakers to establish footholds in developing markets.
China overtook Japan as the largest auto exporter in the world during the first quarter. It is likely to defend that position for the first half, as Japanese exports including buses and trucks were 1.61 million units between January and May, according to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association. Russia was the top destination for Chinese exports, followed by Mexico and Belgium.
However, skeptics have reservations on the outlook for the Chinese auto market. Alicia Garcia Herrero, chief economist for the Asia-Pacific region at the French investment bank Natixis, questioned why there is a price war going on amid solid demand for electrified vehicles both domestically and abroad.
“We know that subsidies were lifted in 2023, but still the demand is there, and external demand is there,” Herrero told reporters on Tuesday. She believes the auto market reflects subdued sentiment in the overall economy: “Domestic demand is really weak. That really explains the very negative sentiment.”