China

Meet China's tiny, adorable Tesla-slayer

The beloved "people's car" from Wuling is cute, cheap and outsells the Model 3 globally. Why won't the Chinese government give it more love?

Wuling Hongguang Mini electric vehicle

Wuling Hongguang Mini electric vehicles, manufactured by SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile Co.

Photo: Zhe Ji/Getty Images

The Wuling Hongguang Mini EV is a homegrown tiny car that has risen to Chinese social media stardom through a rebranding effort worthy of a business school textbook. It's not just China's best-selling EV; it's also a meme.

For each month following its July 2020 release, Wuling's Mini EV has consistently been the top-selling electric vehicle model in China. In January 2021, it dethroned Tesla's Model 3 as the worldwide best seller, according to the EV industry observer José Pontes. In a later post, Pontes described Wuling as "a disruptive force in urban mobility" and "a true EV for the masses."

By pricing at a fraction of the cost of Tesla and meme-ifying the brand's decades-long popularity as an affordable vehicle maker, Wuling has transformed its image among China's youth from a tacky business vehicle to a cool, economic option for a first car.

But that future is not guaranteed. Tiny cars aren't exactly what China's government wants to show the world when it comes to showcasing their automobile manufacturing. The city of Shanghai is planning for a move to push EV makers to sell more high-end models, and Wuling might be taking the hit. With favorable policies fading away, Wuling's future is uncertain.

Wuling, the memelord

It didn't start with EV. Wuling, a joint venture between General Motors and two long-standing Chinese car makers, has always been in the media spotlight. In May 2010, Forbes Magazine put a Wuling minivan on its cover and called it "the most important car on earth," referring to its globe-leading sales numbers.

Wuling vehicles — mostly minivans — are designed to be affordable, versatile and easy to engineer for specialized uses. In an era when the majority of Chinese people couldn't pay much for cars, Wuling's were the favorite pick among small business owners and farmers who needed a vehicle for both personal and business uses. And because the cars only cost around $5,000 new, owners have less concern using them for heavy-duty work.

At the time of the Forbes cover, 2 million Wuling Zhiguang were running down China's streets. That same year, the company released Wuling Hongguang, an even more popular minivan that would continue to sell hundreds of thousands each year.

Wuling's ubiquity easily translated into social media virality. People started calling Wuling Hongguang "the people's supercar" (国民神车). The brand is so down-to-earth that it has turned cool again. In 2017, luxury car owners around the country started replacing their BMW or Ferrari logos with fake Wuling Hongguang ones just for a quick laugh.

Yet since 2017, Wuling's sales numbers and net profit have been steadily declining. The company has tried different ways to rebrand or diversify its products, but it hasn't seemed to help much. So, when Wuling joined the crowded EV manufacturing race in 2020, the public's expectations and doubts were equally high.

Wuling delivered. The Hongguang Mini EV, looking like a more chiseled Volkswagen Beetle, has kept its traditional appeal. It's priced between $4,500 and $7,000, about one-ninth of what the Tesla's cheapest Model 3 costs in China. Buyers can charge their Wuling at home instead of going to a special charging station. It has sacrificed many functions for the low cost: the cheapest model of Wuling Mini EV doesn't even have an air conditioner, and no model has airbags. But it stayed consistent to its brand image as the "people's car."

And the company knows how to win the hearts of young car buyers, who probably recognize Wuling more for its memes than for its practical value. It released cars in bright, macaron colors and encouraged users to individualize their cars. Across lifestyle sharing platform Xiaohongshu, young buyers have posted photo essays showing how they transformed their Wuling Mini EVs using unorthodox colors, retro decorations and anime stickers. Doing so is sufficiently popular that it's become hard to tell which photos are paid sponsorship and which are spontaneous acts of love.

The numbers suggest Wuling's gamble has paid off. It's selling tens of thousands of this Mini EV each month, more than any other EV model. Over half of Wuling Mini EV's buyers are younger than 30 and over 60% of buyers are women, according to the company.

The flip side of Wuling's low prices is low revenue, at least for now. When parent company Shanghai SAIC Motor released its financials of 2020, it said Wuling's net profit of 2020 shrank 90% compared to 2019, even though that was the year Wuling's Mini EV was supposed to have saved the brand. But the Gen Z love is real, and a textbook example of a successful rebranding.

An industry diverging

China's EV industry has come a long way. From 2010 to 2016, the central government subsidized almost every electric or hybrid vehicle purchase by as much as $10,000; the subsidy amount dwindled after 2016, and many cars, from hybrid vehicles to small-sized ones, were eliminated from the qualified categories. But the policy has achieved its desired effect. Today, not only is every car maker releasing electricity-powered models, but many tech companies are becoming EV companies too. This March, EV sales accounted for over 10% of total auto sales in China for the first time.

Wuling's rise represents one of two diverging trends in the industry. On one hand, high-end cars like Tesla are doing great. Much like in the United States, Tesla ownership is a status symbol.

On the other hand, tiny, cheap cars have found their own markets too. People choose Wuling's Mini EV for their daily commute, not road trips. In fact, prices can go even lower than Wuling if a buyer is willing to accept a tiny, off-brand vehicle that is essentially an electric bike sheathed within a car-like exterior. They dominate China's roads and are especially popular among seniors.

Cheap cars like Wuling have another benefit. In megacities like Shanghai, where license plates are rationed to control traffic congestion, a license plate for a traditional car can cost an average of $14,000. But because these cities are encouraging the purchases of EVs, an EV buyer can get a new license plate for free. Some buy a tiny EV like Wuling's for the sole purpose of getting a new plate.

But the number of electric cars is growing so fast that these policies may come to an end soon. Beijing has already imposed license plate limits on EVs. Shanghai, where 125,460 "new energy cars" were sold last year, is thinking of following suit. Starting in early May, Wuling Mini EV buyers in Shanghai were told they could not register for a new license plate. The rumor, as reported by National Business Daily, is that all EVs shorter than 15 feet and cheaper than $15,666 will soon be disqualified from new plates in China's financial capital.

The majority of Wuling's sales take place in second- or third-tier Chinese cities, so that policy's effect on the company will be limited. But it signals a broader trend toward stricter regulations and less incentives for the growing EV industry.

It also hints at China's bigger problem: the country wants to upgrade its EV industry and gain global market share. An affordable but technically unsophisticated car isn't the kind of success story Beijing wants to tell, even if that car is hip enough to outsell Tesla. While the new rules in Shanghai have not been made public yet, it suggests that authorities are favoring cars that are bigger and more expensive, effectively encouraging car makers to go in that direction.

Entertainment

The (gaming) clones never stopped attacking

Clones keep getting through app review despite App Store rules about copying. It's a sign of the weaknesses in mobile app stores — and the weakness in Big Tech’s after-the-fact moderation approach.

Clones aren't always illegal, but they are widely despised.

Image: Disney

Two of the most fundamental tenets of the mobile gaming market:

  1. Free always wins.
  2. No good gaming idea is safe from copycats.

In combination, these two rules help produce what the industry calls a clone. Most often, clones are low-effort, ripped-off versions of popular games that monetize in not-so-savory fashion while drawing in players with a price tag of zero.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Sponsored Content

A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

Keep Reading Show less
Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.
Entertainment

Beat Saber, Bored Apes and more: What to do this weekend

Don't know what to do this weekend? We've got you covered.

Images: Ross Belot/Flickr; IGBD; BAYC

This week we’re listening to “Harvest Moon” on repeat; burning some calories playing Beat Saber; and learning all about the artist behind the goofy ape pics that everyone (including Gwyneth Paltrow?) is talking about.

Neil Young: Off Spotify? No problem.

Neil Young removed his music from Spotify this week, but countless recordings are still available on YouTube, including this 1971 video of him performing “Heart of Gold” in front of a live studio audience, complete with some charming impromptu banter. And while you’re there, scroll down and read a few of the top-rated comments. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

'Archive 81': Not based on a book, but on a podcast!

Netflix’s latest hit show is a supernatural mystery horror mini-series, and I have to admit that I was on the fence about it many times, in part because the plot just often didn’t add up. But then the main character, Dan the film buff and archivist, would put on his gloves, get in the zone, and meticulously restore a severely damaged, decades old video tape, and proceed to look for some meaning beyond the images. That ritual, and the sentiment that we produce, consume and collect media for something more than meets the eye, ultimately saved the show, despite some shortcomings.

'Secrets of Sulphur Springs': Season 2 is out now

If you’re looking for a mystery that's a little more family-friendly, give this show about a haunted hotel, time travel, and kids growing up in a world that their parents don’t fully understand a try. Season 2 dropped on Disney+ this month, and it not only includes a lot more time travel mysteries, but even uses the show’s time machine to tackle subjects as serious as reparations.

The artist behind those Bored Apes

Remember how NFTs are supposed to generate royalties with every resale, and thus support artists better than any of their existing revenue streams? Seneca, the artist who was instrumental in creating those iconic apes for the Bored Ape Yacht Club, wasn’t able to share details about her compensation in this Rolling Stone profile, but it sure sounds like she is not getting her fair share.

Beat Saber: Update incoming

Years later, Beat Saber remains my favorite VR game, which is why I was very excited to see a teaser video for cascading blocks, which could be arriving any day now. Time to bust out the Quest for some practice time this weekend!

Correction: Story has been updated to correct the spelling of Gwyneth Paltrow's name. This story was updated Jan. 28, 2022.


Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Workplace

Mental health at work is still taboo. Here's how to make it easier.

Tech leaders, HR experts and organizational psychologists share tips for how to destigmatize mental health at work.

How to de-stigmatize mental health at work, according to experts.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

When the pandemic started, HR software startup Phenom knew that its employees were going to need mental health support. So it started offering a meditation program, as well as a counselor available for therapy sessions.

To Chief People Officer Brad Goldoor’s surprise, utilization of these benefits was very low, starting at about a 10% take rate and eventually weaning off. His diagnosis: People still aren’t fully comfortable opening up about mental health, and they’re especially not comfortable engaging with their employer on the topic.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

Fintech

Robinhood's regulatory troubles are just the tip of the iceberg

It’s easiest to blame Robinhood’s troubles on regulatory fallout, but its those troubles have obscured the larger issue: The company lacks an enduring competitive edge.

A crypto comeback might go a long way to help Robinhood’s revenue

Image: Olena Panasovska / Alex Muravev / Protocol

It’s been a full year since Robinhood weathered the memestock storm, and the company is now in much worse shape than many of us would have guessed back in January 2021. After announcing its Q4 earnings last night, Robinhood’s stock plunged into the single digits — just below $10 — down from a recent high of $70 in August 2021. That means Robinhood’s valuation dropped more than 84% in less than six months.

Investor confidence won’t be bolstered much by yesterday’s earnings results. Total net revenues dropped to $363 million from $365 million in the preceding quarter. In the quarter before that, Robinhood reported a much better $565 million in net revenue. Net losses were bad but not quite as bad as before: Robinhood reported a $423 million net loss in Q4, an improvement from the $1.3 billion net loss in Q3 2021. One of the most shocking data points: Average revenue per user dropped to $64, down from a recent high of $137 in Q1 2021. At the same time, Robinhood actually reported a decrease in monthly active users, from 18.9 million in Q3 2021 to 17.3 million in Q4 2021.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He's based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins