China's booming economy is creating new social strains as major cities consider limits on private cars.
Rising incomes have aggravated urban headaches as record sales of 18 million vehicles have produced monster traffic jams in the past year.
With little warning, Beijing's municipal government announced on Dec. 23 that it would register only 240,000 new cars in 2011, a steep cut from the usual volume of some 800,000, state media said.
The news set off a storm of complaints and a scramble among buyers to beat the deadline.
"Such strict limitations go against the economic imperative," said one Beijing auto dealer, predicting a "cold winter" for business, the official English-language China Daily reported.
'The good life'
But governments have been pressed to choose between the consequences of constant tie-ups and curbs on economic freedoms. The restrictions are coming just as middle-class growth is set to soar.
"The Chinese consumer wants to have the lifestyle of the Western consumer," said Lowell Dittmer, a China expert and political science professor at the University of California's Berkeley campus.
"They want to have the good life, and if they're restricted from having that, there will be a certain discontent," he said.
Officials may face criticism no matter which way they turn. But with a near-doubling of cars in Beijing to over 4.7 million in the past five years, they have little choice but to act.
Rising environmental damage, energy waste, and fuel consumption from cars are the downsides of a Chinese auto industry that surpassed the United States in 2009 to become the largest in the world.
Production growth topped 30 percent in 2010 after a 48-percent surge the previous year.
China has also nearly doubled construction of freeways in the past five years, adding 33,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) of new highways. In the same period, China built a total of 639,000 kilometers of new roads, the official Xinhua news agency said.
But construction cannot keep up with the flood of new cars.
The restrictions may represent a coming of age in China. Officials may be starting to recognize that they cannot simply build their way out of problems.
Limits on cars could lead to greater reliance on mass transit, said Dittmer. Last week, Beijing officially opened five new metro lines, bringing the total number in the city's system to 14.
On Dec. 28, the Ministry of Finance also announced it was ending the tax break on small cars that was introduced last year to stimulate production during the global financial crisis. The move is likely to put an additional brake on car sales.
Beijing's registration restriction is one of 28 measures to ease congestion, including a limit of one car per owner, higher parking fees, and bans on cars registered outside the city during rush hours.
Complaints in the city of 19 million may be tempered by confidence that consumers have often found ways around government rules, said Dittmer.
"They're quite flexible and resourceful in evading these constraints, and the constraints may not last that long if there is a greater sense of discontent," he said.
Period of retrenchment?
But there are also signs that other cities could follow suit if Beijing's experiment proves successful.
Shenzhen to the south is also considering new measures as its crush of 1.9 million cars nears a transport capacity limit of 2.1 million vehicles, China Daily said.
The crackdown on congestion may be another sign that China is entering a period of retrenchment after years of spectacular economic expansion.
In 2010, the central government grew concerned about the rise of property prices, which helped push inflation above the official three-percent annual target but also threatened long-term plans to urbanize Chinese society.
The government sees urbanization as a way to close the widening income gap between city residents and 700 million rural dwellers, but high housing prices and congestion present rising barriers.
Reports of the problems in cities may only serve to accentuate the inequalities. Too many cars is a problem about which the rural poor can only dream.
"Everybody's constantly aware of this danger," said Dittmer, referring to the social pressures of the wage gap.
But in urban societies, there is also the risk of unrest over cars.
On Dec. 23, some 200 residents of the Wangjing West Community in northwest Beijing clashed with police over the abrupt closing of their 10-story garage, Xinhua reported.
The dispute over parking may be headed to court.