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Waving the Red Flag

By Cheng Lu and Liu Xin (Shanghai Daily)

08:19, February 19, 2013

Five young people stretch out their arms to measure the super-long, 10.08-meter Hongqi limousine that was commissioned for Chairman Mao Zedong at the Beijing Classic Car Museum, where 200-plus old Chinese and foreign limousines and other vehicles are displayed. (Shanghai Daily)

The fabled Hongqi or Red Flag was China's first domestically produced sedan and the limousine chosen by Chairman Mao Zedong and other leaders. Cheng Lu and Liu Xin talk to a collector of automotive nostalgia.

For years, the sedan and limousine of choice of China's leaders was Hongqi, or Red Flag, a stately, domestically hand-crafted automobile that was synonymous with power and status.

Hongqi was part of Chinese history, a thing of pride, and it was seen in thousands of photographs over the years of Chairman Mao Zedong and others taking part in parades and waving to cheering people.

No more. Today luxury imports such as Audi are preferred. Though a Hongqi revitalization effort is underway, it hasn't made much of an impact yet.

One Hongqi fan and collector has opened a private classic car museum in Beijing, capital of China.

Eighty kilometers north of the city, the Beijing Classic Car Museum has 200-plus old limousines and other vehicles including Chinese and foreign brands like Hongqi, Ford, Dodge, Desoto, Mercedes-Benz and Volga.

Among them are 36 Hongqi vehicles sedans and limousines, and they are the favorites of Luo Wenyou, the museum's owner.

"Some were once used by Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai and Marshal Nie Rongzhen," the 58-year-old collector says.

"Hongqi represents China and Chinese car manufacturing at its best," says Luo. "Each part, from the smallest screws to the engine, was developed and manufactured by Chinese people themselves."

In 1956, the Communist Party of China held its Central Political Bureau meeting. Chairman Mao expressed his wish to be driven to the meeting in a domestically manufactured car.

At the time, China's auto industry was budding as the country's First Automobile Works (FAW) broke ground in 1953 in Changchun, capital city of Jilin Province in the northeast.

"'Live up to Mao's expectations, make a desirable car dedicated to him' became a slogan," Luo says.

In 1958, the first Hongqi sedan was produced by the FAW in response to Mao's wish.

Since its debut as the parade sedan at Tian'anmen Square in 1959 during China's 10th National Day celebration, the Hongqi has always played a major ceremonial role.

The brand has been the nation's pride because of its links with Party leaders and important events.

Production ended in 1981 because of high fuel consumption and competition from luxury foreign imports.

Since 1964, Hongqi was the official sedan for state guests, replacing the former Soviet Union's ZIS.

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