SHANGHAI -- Until recently, China's electric vehicle industry was nothing more than a hobby.
In 2013, automakers produced only 17,600 EVs and plug-in hybrids.
Automakers halfheartedly built them while bureaucrats dithered over proposals to jolt the industry into action.
This year, the industry shook off its torpor, producing 25,946 EVs and plug-in hybrids in eight months.
This sudden turnaround is due largely to one person, Ma Kai. Ma was named vice premier in 2013, a year after joining the Politburo, the Communist Party's top governing body.
Ma, 68, has rich experience working with government agencies. Previously, he was secretary-general of the State Council and before that head of the National Development and Reform Commission, China's central economic planning agency.
So Ma knows something about bureaucrats and red tape. He also happens to be an enthusiastic promoter of EVs, plug-in hybrids and fuel cells.
After he became vice premier 18 months ago, Ma spent the rest of 2013 visiting major Chinese EV makers such as BYD Co. and Jianghuai Automobile Co.
This year, he took action. In February, Ma coaxed the government to preserve substantial subsidies for EVs and plug-in hybrids.
Beijing had planned to reduce incentives 10 percent this year and 20 percent in 2015. Now, the government has agreed to cut subsidies only 5 percent this year and 10 percent next year.
In another win for EVs, the central government forced big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing to abandon protectionist policies that favored local EV manufacturers. Now, China's cities will offer subsidies to all domestic EV producers, regardless of their location.
And in a third EV win, the central government this month began exempting EVs and plug-in hybrids from a 10 percent sales tax.
Thanks to these policies, sales of EVs and plug-ins have tripled to 20,477 units in the first half.
More policies are in the pipeline. Ma appears ready to support the legalization of small, inexpensive EVs. According to Chinese media, last month he sent a team to study the quality of EVs built in Henan and Shandong provinces.
Those vehicles run from 50 to 80 kph (31 to 50 mph) and typically sell for less than 50,000 yuan ($8,160). They are widely used in small towns and rural areas with the tacit approval of local government. Beijing plans to grant legal status to those vehicles if they meet minimum safety standards.
There may be additional policies to promote EVs. To subsidize production of EVs and plug-in hybrids, the government may raise taxes on traditional gasoline-powered cars and trucks, Wang Chuanfu, chairman of BYD Co., said in a recent press briefing in Tianjin.
Beijing also plans to subsidize construction of EV charging stations, according to media reports.
It will take time to implement those policies. But Ma's five-year term as vice premier won't expire until early 2018.
So he still has plenty of time to push policies to promote China's EV industry. Ma has spurred the government into action. The bureaucratic boulder is starting to roll downhill.