General Motors’ tank-like Hummer is known in China as Han MaHan Ma, which translates as “fierce horse.” This week, the brand was put out to pasture by the Chinese company Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery, which withdrew its bid to buy the unit after the Chinese government refused to approve the deal. For a vehicle whose status as a symbol long ago overtook its value as a product, even its trip to the glue factory represents more than a failed business transaction.
Few vehicles on the road today provoke visceral reactions like the Hummer, whose militaristic profile strikes some as a provocation and others as a declaration of independence. It’s probable that Hummer lovers and haters can be divided into distinct political camps. To liberals, especially those with an environmental bent, the vehicles symbolize everything that’s wrong with the American culture of conspicuous consumption in general and with GM in particular -- gas-guzzling monstrosities that hog space in parking lots, pollute the air and pose a threat to passengers of smaller cars in collisions. To conservatives, they’re just safe, rugged, powerful fun, and if people want to buy them, it’s nobody else’s business.
For our part, we’re not going to mourn the extinction of the Hummer, whose combined fleet gets roughly 10 miles per gallon. The brand, which probably will be shuttered by GM in the next few months if it can’t find another buyer, doesn’t represent so much a failure by GM or consumers as by Congress, which resisted tightening fuel economy standards long after it became obvious that U.S. reliance on foreign oil was growing out of control and that vehicle emissions were playing a serious role in climate change. Fortunately, that resistance ended in 2007, when standards were finally improved. Yet what strikes us about the failed Hummer deal is what it says about how far Washington still lags behind other countries -- especially China.
Like the U.S., China is heavily reliant on imported oil, and the Hummer deal didn’t fit in with Beijing’s new focus on energy-efficient vehicles and renewable energy. Private clean-energy investment in China surpassed that in the U.S. last year, and the Chinese government is expected to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in the sector in coming years. Unlike the U.S., which has no comparable national standard, China has committed to get 15% of its power from renewable sources by 2020. These are not altruistic gestures by Beijing; they’re laps in a race toward dominance in clean energy whose economic consequences will be far greater than those of the space race of the 1960s. Yet Washington has barely entered the starting gate.