Auto Industry

Seeing red

Why Ferrari can’t stay out of the news in China

Seeing red

If you’ve got it, flaunt it

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, or so the saying goes. If that’s the case then Ferrari has been getting a lot of free advertising in China in the past few weeks.

In the most recent case of Ferrari in the limelight, a wealthy mainland Chinese expatriate called Ma Chi sped though a red light in Singapore, slammed into a taxi and killed himself, the taxi driver and his passenger. A woman travelling with Ma, said to be a local nightclub hostess, survived the accident.

A gruesome video of the crash has been widely watched online, prompting fury at Ma’s reckless behaviour. Members of his family in China didn’t help their case with comments to a local newspaper that “the rich is not always at fault” and that netizens should “hold back their poisonous tongues”.

In fact, the Chinese media has not said much about Ma except that he hailed from the southwestern province of Sichuan. Meanwhile posts on weibo suggesting that he was the son of a senior Party official were soon being censored. If Ma does turn out to be a ‘princeling’ it would be the third such incident involving a Ferrari and a member of the second generation rich – or fu’er dai – recently, although his wife denied the claim this week.

The most famous of the three incidents involved Bo Guagua, son of the ousted Chongqing Party secretary Bo Xilai, who was reported to have picked up a daughter of Jon Huntsman, the former US ambassador to China, in a Ferrari last year.

The Wall Street Journal put the story on its front page and translated versions were widely forwarded on the Chinese internet. Netizens are no longer shocked to learn that the children of the Party elite lead such privileged lives. But they were additionally annoyed by the Bo story because his father was spearheading a Maoist revival in Chongqing at the time.

The irony of Bo senior “singing red” while his son was “driving red” wasn’t lost on the majority.

Shortly before he was sacked in March, Bo senior denied that his son had ever driven a red Ferrari, a line that the younger Bo repeated a few weeks later. The New York Times has also disputed the details on the evening in question, including the existence of the Ferrari itself. The story had been used as “a political weapon wielded against the elder Mr Bo,” it warned. The Journal has corrected a detail in the original version of the story (about where Ms Huntsman was picked up) but it is sticking by its red Ferrari claim.

Whatever the truth, it was only a matter of weeks before Ferrari was climbing up the weibo hot topic listings once again, this time after a  black Spider 458 worth a reported Rmb4.5 million veered off Beijing’s fourth ring road in the early hours of the morning. Perhaps the story would have ended there. But netizens were intrigued when censors stepped in to block all searches for news of the accident online. That led to conjecture: soon the rumour was circulating that the driver – who died at the scene – was an illegitimate son of another Party senior.

Of course, Ferrari itself couldn’t be blamed for featuring in any of these headlines. That wasn’t the case earlier this month when the firm’s dealership in Nanjing arranged for its new limited edition 458 Italia to be filmed traversing the city’s ancient ramparts at high speed.

Like a glammed-up episode of Top Gear, the shooting seemed to go well enough until disaster struck at the finalé – a 360 degree high-speed turn that left black tyre marks on the 600-year-old stonework.

Ferrari was soon being scolded for its dreadful disregard for Chinese heritage (even if cynics might counter that Mao did more lasting damage to Chinese city walls, demolishing, for example, Beijing’s).

Despite the cultural faux pas, there is little likelihood of the Italian carmaker suffering commercially. Ferrari sold 777 cars in Greater China last year, second only to the US. This year it plans to add another five showrooms to meet fervent Chinese demand.

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