STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep in Beijing amid thousands of people in this city's Tiananmen Square. The Red Wall at the front of the Forbidden City is just behind me here. President Trump comes to this city this week. He's going to meet China's leader, Xi Jinping, who was just confirmed as China's leader for another five years. It happened at the Great Hall of the People, this massive, columned building off to the side. President Xi has set ambitious goals for his country, goals that matter as President Trump comes here seeking better trade terms with China. China has goals to dominate industries of the future, including an industry we'll discuss this morning. We saw a sign of it as soon as we traveled to the southern city of Shenzhen and climbed into a taxi - an electric taxi.
So what's it like to drive this car?
LUI JUN FAN: (Speaking Chinese).
INSKEEP: The driver whose name is Lui Jun Fan answered, OK. He's a restaurant owner whose business failed. So he put on sunglasses and climbed behind the wheel. His taxi runs quietly and is easy to drive but...
FAN: (Speaking Chinese).
INSKEEP: "Let me tell you one problem," he says. "There aren't enough battery charging stations around here." He's heard of people fighting over them. His battery is not the world's best.
How many kilometers can you go without charging the car?
FAN: (Speaking Chinese).
INSKEEP: He says his battery gets him about 180 miles per charge. He's heard from taxi passengers that American electric cars made by Tesla go farther. And what he's heard is true. But from China's perspective, the key point is that the battery is made in China. The government has set a goal to become the biggest player in what are called new energy vehicles - like hybrid and electric - setting the stage for a quiet revolution in the auto industry.
You can hear that gentle whine of the electric motor. That's the only sound this car makes as we're driving through Shenzhen.
The driver is taking us outside the city to a place where we can learn more. The electric vehicle company - BYD - initials that stand for Build Your Dreams. Its investors include Warren Buffett, and its brand ambassador in China is Leonardo DiCaprio...
(SOUNDBITE OF BYD COMMERCIAL)
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: New energy can give us a new future...
INSKEEP: ...Whose face appears on ads at the corporate campus. BYD started making batteries years ago for phones and computers and, with help from government subsidies, has expanded into battery-powered cars and even electric monorails like the one that runs overhead at the company headquarters. We climbed on board with Richard Li, the company's chief of public relations.
So I got to ask this question, have you ever been to Walt Disney World?
RICHARD LI: (Laughter) Yeah.
INSKEEP: I asked that because the monorail looks like the elevated trains that glide around Disney. It passes a parking garage.
FAN: So you see they have 10 floors, and each floor you have 40 spots, so you can charge 400 cars simultaneously here.
INSKEEP: Every single parking space is a charging station?
INSKEEP: Later we transferred to an oversized golf cart - battery-powered, of course - and ride past the factory entrance.
We're watching a shift change over here. Hundreds if not thousands of people walking out of the factory. Everybody in a blue shirt.
Close to 40,000 people work here. Some of them live in apartment buildings right on the property, four to a room with their laundry drying on balconies.
LI: Our goal - our objective - is to achieve complete transportation electrification.
INSKEEP: Electrification of every kind of...
INSKEEP: ...Moving vehicle...
For all of the grandeur of its headquarters, BYD is not a big automaker yet. The company says it sold more than 100,000 hybrid or pure electric vehicles last year. That is a fraction of what Toyota sold with its hybrid the Prius. But BYD's stock value is soaring. It stands to benefit as China's government begins requiring all automakers to produce at least some new energy vehicles. That rule by China's central planners could reshape the global auto industry. To learn just how, we returned to Beijing to the home of a man with long experience in the Chinese auto business.
JACK PERKOWSKI: Jack Perkowski.
INSKEEP: Hey. Steve Inskeep.
PERKOWSKI: Nice to meet you.
INSKEEP: Jack Perkowski led the way into the elevator of his apartment building.
PERKOWSKI: You can experience my daily commute.
INSKEEP: He works on one floor and lives on another.
Oh, what a lovely apartment.
PERKOWSKI: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Perkowski is an American who came here more than 20 years ago and put together an auto parts company.
PERKOWSKI: Individuals didn't have money. Companies didn't have money. Nobody had money. So all of a sudden, there's this guy running around China, visiting all these factories, saying that he was going to bring - or could bring - capital.
INSKEEP: Today it's different. China has access to almost limitless capital. And when the government decided the future belonged to new energy cars with those electric vehicle - or EV - batteries inside, Chinese entrepreneurs lunged at an opportunity.
PERKOWSKI: Do you know that now there are 140 companies in China - over 140 companies in China - making EV batteries? One hundred forty.
PERKOWSKI: And there are probably a half a dozen around the rest of the world. Are all of them good? No. No, not all them are good, but there are 140, and they're all putting on capacity.
INSKEEP: Years ago, China turned its attention to steel, and Chinese companies made so much of it they flooded the world market. The same could happen with electric vehicles and parts. There may be a place for American firms in all of this. Tesla says it plans to build a factory in China. And Jack Perkowski himself is now involved in founding an electric vehicle company. But Chinese firms will have a powerful government behind them. The people watching this include Alvin Lin - of the U.S.-based nonprofit the Natural Resources Defense Council - who works in Beijing.
ALVIN LIN: China really wants to dominate the world market in electric vehicles and - put very simply.
INSKEEP: Do you think that China could dominate the world market for electric vehicles?
LIN: Certainly. You know, I think in a way they already are.
INSKEEP: China's President Xi approaches this growing industry very differently than the president he will host this week. President Trump's proposed tax plan would eliminate tax credits for Americans who buy electric cars. And instead of a focus on new energy sources, President Trump promotes fossil fuels.
LIN: China is really - at the central level compared to the U.S. federal government - really viewing this as a strategic industry. So they're putting their weight behind it.
INSKEEP: China's biggest advantage is visible here. We're on a pedestrian bridge overlooking a Beijing thoroughfare, six lanes of auto traffic. China - not the United States - now has the world's biggest auto market, which gives China outsized influence no matter what President Trump may achieve when he comes here to Beijing this week. We will report from China throughout this week of the president's visit.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.