Panda diplomacy is a thing of the past. Diplomats and the Chinese elite now have a flashier option: Chairman Mao Zedong's sedan.
The automaker China FAW Group has begun selling modern versions of the venerable Hongqi, or "Red Flag cars," after a 31-year hiatus, Bloomberg News reported. The made-in-China sedans will compete with the likes of Volkswagen's Audi in the domestic car market, which had increased 13 percent year-over-year in April, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. FAW, which spent $300 million renovating the brand, plans to invest $1.7 billion in development through 2015.
The Communist Party is along for the ride. President Xi Jinping said at an internal meeting in December that it didn't look good for Chinese officials to ride in foreign-made cars, according to the 21st Century Business Herald. China's Commerce Ministry also lists the cars among items the government can donate to foreign countries: Beijing gave 20 Red Flags worth about $2.3 million to Fiji earlier this month. Perhaps President Barack Obama, who meets with Xi next week, will get one to drive around the South Side of Chicago in his post-presidential life.
FAW built the first Red Flag for Mao in 1958. The three flags on the side of the car stand for the three pillars of the Communist Party -- farmers, workers and soldiers, writes Tycho de Feyter, who has a collection of Red Flags. He describes the design on The Truth About Cars blog:
For modernity, FAW looked to the United States. Loads of chrome up front, very square greenhouse, and small tail-fins at the back. The Chinese characteristics emerge in the grille which was shaped like a Chinese fan.
FAW only made about 1,500 -- reserved for high-ranking officials -- before it discontinued the cars in 1982 for excessive gas consumption. Given Beijing's trouble with air pollution, here's hoping the Red Flags today have better mileage.
(Kirsten Salyer is social media editor for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)