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China On Four Wheels: In celebration of the bread van

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Jane McMullen Jane McMullen | 13:02 UK time, Thursday, 6 September 2012

"Are you mad? Those vans won't go above 80kmph! And they break down after a few hundred miles. And you're planning to go how far?"

My mission to rent a bread van wasn't going smoothly.

The loaf-shaped car of the people is driven by millions throughout China - farmers and business people alike.

While not exactly nippy (we're talking about a one litre engine) it's cheap and reliable.

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Justin Rowlatt gives the bread van a go at Ordos International Race Track in China

As the assistant producer on China On Four Wheels one of my tasks was to find the cars for our two road trips.

With bread vans so common I wasn't expecting it to be hard to find one for our presenter Justin Rowlatt.

Justin was to drive the bread van through the dusty back roads through the remote, poor west to explore life for those left behind by the boom.

In contrast our co-presenter Anita Rani was to drive a luxury Chinese-made Great Wall 4x4, or SUV on the high road through the industrialised east looking at how the economic boom was changing lives for China's 'haves'.

SUVs are the car of choice for status-conscious Chinese urbanites.

Great Wall is China's biggest manufacturer of SUVs. It started selling in the UK this year although it only made its first car 10 years ago.

But days into my search I had got nowhere.

Due to the bewildering idiosyncrasies of the Chinese bureaucracy we were obliged to find rental cars for our presenters: their temporary driving licences wouldn't allow them to drive privately owned cars.

So I was looking for Beijing rental companies stocking these cars and more importantly, willing to rent them to foreigners on a filming trip across a country the size of a continent.

Rental companies are new to China but they've grown rapidly. The biggest players have fleets of thousands - but they laughed at us.

"Why would you want a Chinese car? Why not a Buick or a Toyota? They're much better quality than the Chinese makes."

In a country where the car you drive is a badge of status, the majority of cars bought in China are foreign brands.

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Anita Rani meets members of the China Supercar Club in Beijing

Just days before the filming was due to start we found a small SUV club on the outskirts of Beijing.

The club organises 'self-driving' tours, helping a new breed of Chinese holiday-makers to shun the coach tour for a more independent experience.

To our relief among their plethora of imported Jeeps and Mitsubishis was a Great Wall.

But the bread van? The search got more obscure and the response increasingly scornful.

"It's the car of the people", we pleaded. But not the car of status-conscious Beijingers it turns out.

Luckily we then found Xu Shiqiang, 'Boss Xu', who you'll see in episode one, and his company Dongfang.

Mr Xu agreed to buy a bread van for us, register it as a rental car, and then rent it back to us.

Convoluted and bureaucratic certainly, but a solution. After weeks of searching we breathed another sigh of relief.

And did the bread van make it around China? It's not the car of the people for nothing! Small, idiosyncratic and slightly tin-pot, our loaf-shaped van quietly got the job done.

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Justin gets stuck in a traffic jam, China style

Across China we'd met people from all walks of life wanting big gas-guzzlers - flashy and foreign if possible - despite all this entails for China's already congested and polluted cities.

Of course we in the West aren't immune to the allure of showy cars - so it was a surprise then, and a salutary one, that Justin's bread van became the star of the show.

Jane McMullen is the assistant producer on China On Four Wheels.

China On Four Wheels is on Sunday, 9 September at 8pm on BBC Two and BBC HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    I would love to!(comment). But I can't. Why is there a restriction: "Not available in your area" placed on those videos? Reading that, I actually got a little smirk on my face - realizing the unintended mockery of Chinese style media 'openness', where such a strict context screening and just rampant State controlled censorship would naturally explained this denial. Are you a real BBC? Perhaps it is some sort of deal, or agreement, between you and the Chinese Government not to spread dissent by excluding people in China from viewing Chinese-themed videos on BBC site? :-)
    Can you at least make an exemption for us, people living in the US?

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    "Why would you want a Chinese car? Why not a Buick or a Toyota? They're much better quality than the Chinese makes."


    I shudder to think what would happen to an American car rental company which said the same of its Fords and Chevrolets vs Toyota, BMW etc...

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm surprised you can rent these cars... especially the SUV, in manual transmission - all people I know back in China all drive automatics. And you even get cars of 1.2 litre petrol engine with automatics - that won't get you very far on the mountain slopes as I did 12 years ago...

    And for the people not in UK, because we in UK pay for a TV tax (called TV license) which fund BBC's activities (as they had no commercial ads at all if you haven't noticed), so that's why BBC contents will not be available outside of UK. And I think it a good way to atract tourists over to UK for the contents they just want to lay their hands on - a new sub-category call 'digital tourism' in the tourism board - over to BBC World Services LOL...

  • Comment number 6.

    @ mzsquare, you are aware of something called a tv license?? If you are not in the uk then you can't watch the content. You have to pay!! Nothing to do with restrictions...

  • Comment number 7.

    Anita why are you always driving without wearing a seatbelt? It's dangerous and illegal! I think you should have used each others vehicles as the small bread van is best for cities and the Great Wall for Justin going off road (plus a much greater distance). The bread van appeared at the beginning covered in dust, so must have stood for a while. Were the fluids even checked??!

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Alistair,

    Thanks for your comment. To answer your questions, Anita did always drive with a seatbelt on - as did Justin. We took safety on the road seriously and made sure that all the necessary precautions were taken. In a similar vein we gave both cars a service before we set off.

    As for the cars Justin and Anita drove, the cars were chosen to reflect the routes they took. Justin's journey explored life for China's rural poor, so we wanted him to drive the sort of car driven by peasants and rural businesspeople. We wanted Anita to drive a car that was popular with middle class city people, reflecting her journey through middle class industrialised China. That's why Justin ended up with the bread van. And as I pointed out, it did really well!


  • Comment number 9.

    Justin's trip excellent. Anita Rani's trip dreadful and boring.

  • Comment number 10.

    I'd like to ask about where Justin got his statistics about car growth in China.
    Only 10% of population have cars and 1Million more cars are being put on roads every month. Is this really ture?

  • Comment number 11.

    Hi Phil, thank you for your message. Yes, staggering though they may be, these statistics are true:

    China Production
    Over the past 18 months China has consistently produced more than 1 million passenger cars each month. In July 2012, the last month for which we have data, China produced 1.2 million passenger cars, and 1.4 million vehicles overall (Source: China Association of Automobile Manufacturers https://www.caam.org.cn/AutomotivesStatistics/20120814/1705076838.html%29. This is also the case for the earlier months of 2012, even in January, a relatively slow month. In 2011, China produced 14.49 million passenger cars, and 18.42 million vehicles over all (https://www.caam.org.cn/AutomotivesStatistics/20120113/1505067047.html%29.

    Car Ownership
    The People’s Daily/Xinhua quotes the State Information Centre as saying that car ownership was 50 million in 2008; 63 million in 2009; and will reach 75 million by the end of 2011 (https://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90778/90860/7006415.html%29. Statistics from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers show that 13.7 million passenger cars were purchased in 2010 and 14 million were purchased in 2011, which would exceed the State Information Centre prediction (https://www.caam.org.cn/AutomotivesStatistics/20110121/1105051627.html and https://www.caam.org.cn/AutomotivesStatistics/20120113/1505067050.html%29. A further 8.7 million passenger cars were sold between January-July 2012 (https://www.caam.org.cn/AutomotivesStatistics/20120814/1705076838.html%29.

    So taking into account the official predictions, and our own back-of-the-envelope calculations based on official figures, the total number of passenger cars sold in China by mid-2012 must now be around 80-100 million.

    The population of China is over 1.34 billion (See CIA Factbook, July 2012 est https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ch.html%29. Therefore even using the most conservative figure, it would be correct to say that under 10% of the population owns a car.

    This means that Chinese car ownership is very low as compared with the global average. But the statistics also tell a different story: car ownership has grown rapidly over the past couple of years, and continues to grow – despite a relative slowdown in the first half of 2012.

    I hope that this helps! Please let me know if you have any further questions about the script or the blog.

    Thank you to everyone for leaving comments.


  • Comment number 12.

    For anyone wanting to view China on Four Wheels from outside the UK, it will be broadcast internationally on BBC World News at the following times:

    Saturday 29th September at 04:10, 17:10 & 22:10 GMT and Sunday 30th September at 10:10 GMT
    Saturday 6th October at 04:10, 17:10 & 22:10 GMT and Sunday 7th October at 10:10 GMT.

  • Comment number 13.

    Excellent programme! I'm here in Beijing and it was great to see other UK interpretations of this extraordinary nation. There isn't a day goes by that something doesn't amaze me. Would be good if there was a follow up programme debating the issues the programme raised.

    In response to Alistair's comment: "The bread van appeared at the beginning covered in dust, so must have stood for a while. Were the fluids even checked??!"

    The bread van may of been washed a day or so a go....honestly! The smog of pollution and dust that covers this city on most days engulfs everthing in it's path, and is why the young migrant lady in episode 1 had a job washing cars. It is a sad sight I see everyday, a line of expensive cars (tens of thousands of pounds) being washed by the migrant workers, some of which should be at school.

    Favourite moment : When Justin asked the wrong question to the group of Chairman Mao theme park tourists.

  • Comment number 14.

    This is a great episode. Surprisingly you guys pronounced Chinese names in a much better (closer to the generic pronunciation) way than many US medias I saw like ABC and even CNN. You guys must have done a lot of "homeworks" and are really serious in doing this great job.

    Just one question here. Although the scene when Justin asked the wrong question to the Mao Zedong theme park tourists is funny enough, I found it improper to get an unbiased conclusion about the Chinese people's opinion about Mao in general. It is like going to a Catholic church and ask people if they believe in God. Naturally they would say yes, but does it mean people in the whole nation has the same idea? Possibly not. As far as I know, many people especially well educated young Chinese do not worship Mao to some extent.


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