China auto show forging ahead under anti-virus controls

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Visitors wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus look at a Tesla vehicle on display at the China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS) in Beijing, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Auto executives are flying in early to wait out a coronavirus quarantine ahead of the Beijing auto show, the year's biggest sales event for a global industry that is struggling with tumbling sales and layoffs. Organizers say they will impose intensive anti-disease controls on crowds and monitor visitors and employees for signs of infection. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

BEIJING – The first event for the CEO of Swedish electric car brand Polestar at this month’s Beijing auto show: A two-week quarantine in a hotel.

The auto show, the first major in-person sales event for any industry since the coronavirus pandemic began, opens Saturday in a sign the ruling Communist Party is confident China has contained the disease. Still, automakers face intensive anti-virus controls including quarantines for visitors from abroad and curbs on crowd sizes at an event that usually is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with spectators.

“The car show will indeed be different from any other car show,” said Thomas Ingenlath of Polestar, owned by China’s Geely Holding, by phone from his hotel room in Tianjin, east of Beijing.

The automakers’ willingness to tackle the show’s logistical challenges highlights the importance of China, their biggest market. Chinese sales have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels while U.S. and European demand is weak and the industry struggles to reverse multibillion-dollar losses.

“China is the only hope for many global car makers,” said John Zeng of LMC Automotive Consulting. “They are really counting on China to help their bottom line.”

Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., BMW AG and other brands are going ahead with global and China debuts of electric SUVs, luxury coupes and futuristic concept cars. Some are broadcasting events online to reach wider audiences.

CEO Makoto Uchida of Nissan Motor Co. and other executives plan to appear by video from their home countries. Most brands are relying on Chinese employees or foreign managers who work in the country full-time to operate their displays while keeping contact with spectators to a minimum.

China's auto industry has largely recovered since the ruling party declared victory over the disease in March and allowed factories and dealerships to reopen.