Even EV foot-dragger Toyota, long wedded to its conventional hybrid technology, sees the writing on the wall. Toyota now plans 10 new EVs worldwide by 2020, with the first landing in China next year on the car company's road to selling nearly 1 million EVs a year in 2030.
At home, Beijing's rules have triggered a gold rush of EV startups.
Hopefuls such as Nio, Byton, Singulato Motors, Xiaopeng Motors (commonly known as Xpeng) and Weltmeister (also known as WM Motor) are mostly unknown overseas. But each wants to be the next Tesla. And old-guard Chinese automakers are upping their games, too.
What was the world's top-selling electric car last year? Not the Tesla Model S or Nissan Leaf.
It was the BAIC EC180, a utilitarian hatchback runabout available only in China. State-owned Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co. sold 72,191 of them, according to industry analytics firm Focus2Move.com. The EC180 helped make BAIC the world's No. 3 EV seller in the first quarter of 2018. The company fell just behind Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi and Tesla but booked much faster growth. Its sales more than doubled to 26,409 vehicles, according to JATO.
The government in China is opaque and authoritarian, a risky combination for anyone wanting to do business there. The high-powered mandarins in Beijing hold the keys to everything from joint ventures to tariffs. And this also dictates how international players navigate the field.
Other top pressure points have long been China's 50 percent ownership cap for foreign carmakers in local joint ventures and the country's 25 percent duty on imported cars
"Does that sound like free or fair trade," Trump complained about the policies in an April Twitter missive. "No, it sounds like STUPID TRADE — going on for years!"
In the interim, China has announced it will start rolling back these roadblocks.
Beijing will drop the joint venture requirement this year for enterprises making new-energy vehicles. It will then be phased out for commercial vehicles in 2020 and for passenger vehicles in 2022.
Meanwhile, China has cut the 25 percent tariff on imported cars to 15 percent, sending foreign brands into a scramble to slash sticker prices.
Even these recent decisions show how China is channeling change.
Douglas A. Bolduc and Yang Jian contributed to this report.