That keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality has led to a surge in premium vehicle sales.
General Motors predicts luxury-brand sales will account for 10 percent of China's volume by 2020 and will surpass U.S. premium vehicle sales in two years.
GM says Chinese consumers' top reasons for choosing which car to buy focus on image: exterior styling and brand reputation. That compares with fuel economy and value for money in the United States. Says GM President Dan Ammann: "Our major trend is the growing interest in larger and more expensive vehicles."
GM is so optimistic it plans to open a Cadillac plant next year with annual capacity of 160,000 vehicles, just shy of the 182,543 Cadillacs sold in the United States last year.
If Chinese consumers can afford it, they buy new and upscale. But increasingly, they splurge even if they can't afford it.
Buying on credit, once unheard of in China, is the second trend energizing the country's vehicle sales. At April's Beijing auto show, the big buzz was financing. Chinese are taking on debt to bankroll that first car, and increasingly, a second.
About 30 percent of vehicle purchases are financed, says Yale Zhang, managing director of Automotive Foresight. A few years ago, that number was in the single digits.
The impulse to impress and broadly and rapidly rising incomes have spurred the rapid shift.
"A lot has to do with peer pressure," says Ong Chin-Lim, director of vehicle sales, service and marketing at GM China.
People who would have waited until their monthly income reached 6,000 yuan, or about $958 at current exchange rates, aren't saving up the same nest eggs. "Now my income's reached 5,000 and I want to buy a car," Ong said.
The final emergent trend is that more Chinese are returning to showrooms for replacement vehicles or second cars.
For years, China's car buyers looked to trade up from a two-wheeler, often a bicycle. That's no longer necessarily the case.