BEIJING -- The recent Beijing auto show generated the usual hoopla of show cars, press conferences and CEO interviews. Yet it wasn't the new-car models that impressed me most but the vast economically underdeveloped areas I saw as I traveled to Beijing from Shanghai by train.
And that, in turn, reminded me of the huge growth potential that China's auto market still promises after years of hectic expansion.
I grew up in eastern China's Jiangsu province, and I have lived in Shanghai for more than 20 years. Jiangsu and Shanghai are two of the most economically developed areas in China.
Last year, an express railway between Shanghai and Beijing started operation, which has reduced the train ride between the two cities to five hours. So I decided to take the train to Beijing this time.
When the train left Shanghai and entered Jiangsu, I saw networks of highways, numerous factory buildings and densely populated cities.
But once the train crossed the Yangtze River at Nanjing in Jiangsu province, it was like entering a different country. On both sides of the railway line, there were vast stretches of farmland where farmers still use water buffaloes and mules to plow the land.
The view remained more or less like that for the four-hour passage through Shandong and Hebei provinces. But once the train approached Beijing, a modern metropolis suddenly seemed to appear in front of me.
What a learning experience!
The last time I took a train to north China was in the 1970s, when I was still a kid. At that time, China was largely an agricultural economy. So the countryside looked the same everywhere.
China has undergone tremendous economic growth since then. But its inland areas have lagged far behind the coastal regions.
Gross domestic product per capita in Shanghai and Beijing has exceeded $12,000. But the typical worker earns only $4,000 in Anhui province, $5,000 in Hebei province and $7,500 in Shandong province.
In Tier 1 cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, the car ownership rate has reached 70 vehicles per 1,000 people.
But in Tier 2 regions such as Shandong and Hebei, the ownership rate is only 29 vehicles per 1,000 residents, according to LMC Automotive, a market research company.
That leaves considerable room for economic growth. Only five of China's 31 provinces and municipalities have Tier 1 economies: Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu province, Zhejiang province and Guangdong province.
But what does that mean to the nation's auto industry?
Well, it means that China's auto market, already the world's largest, still has tremendous potential for growth.
With industrialization spreading inland where labor is still cheap, the Tier 2 and Tier 3 regions have become the new growth engine of China's auto market.
Last year, when auto sales dropped in most Tier 1 regions, the auto market remained strong in Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas.
Judging by what I saw from the train, I believe those economically underdeveloped regions will lead China's auto market growth for many years to come.