When Amazon’s original show The Grand Tour revealed that its presenters had filmed an episode in China, anyone already worried about the current state of China-US/EU relations may well have felt uneasy. The show’s presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May are notorious for insulting, degrading and showing a total lack of respect towards the various nations they visit – seemingly in order to mock the local culture first and then to drive around in unique cars as a secondary priority. The fact that the episode in question is called ‘Chinese Food for Thought’ only added to the ominous premonition that the show would be an hour’s worth of anti-China hatred worthy of a Donald Trump lookalike contest.
The truth was entirely different. In fact, the show helped to present an image of China that made it clear that China is both the world’s most advanced nations in many ways and in others, it remains the world’s most rapidly developing country that continues to grow, evolve, collectively learn and expand its holistic national potential.
The episode began with lead host Jeremy Clarkson driving the Hongqi L5 around Chongqing. The L5 is an ultra-modern luxury car with a vintage style which strongly hints at the famed Hongqi CA770, a model that was introduced in 1961 – almost half a century before China became the world’s biggest producer of cars.
But style is where similarities between the CA770 and L5 end. China’s new flagship luxury vehicle is ultra modern in every sense and Jeremy Clarkson, a man who tends to prefer sporty cars to luxury saloons, seemed to instantly fall in love with the ultra-luxurious car that is clearly built for comfort rather than speed.
However, when it comes to China building for speed, co-host Richard Hammond later track tested the NIO EP9 electric supercar. Upon the show’s professional racing driver doing a lap in the NIO EP9, the Chinese built racer proved to be the second fastest of any car ever tested by The Grand Tour and one which Hammond felt was far safer (due to a superior braking system) than the Croatian built Rimac that he notoriously crashed last year.
The overall premise of the episode was that China’s used car market is ripe for used luxury European cars of the 1990s and early 2000s, as such cars were built to a high standard of luxury, but can be imported to China for substantially less money than purchasing a contemporary ultra-luxury car. And yet, as the English presenters gazed upon the ultra-modern city centre in Chongqing, Clarkson said out-loud that “Britain is doomed”. This is to say that all three hosts were amazed at the pace of ultra-modern building and particularly the pace of ultra-modern motorway building that is occurring in Chongqing, outlying areas and throughout China as a whole.
In this sense, the hosts with their 1990s era used German (Mercedes S-class and BMW 7 series) and American (Cadillac STS) cars presented an intriguing contrast between the old and new. The subliminal message (intended or otherwise) was that the torch of modernity had been passed from west to east as ultimately, the show became more of a review of Reform and Opening Up from a British perspective, rather than a genuine attempt to persuade Chinese car buyers of the virtues of used western luxury models.
As the hosts drove through and later out of central Chongqing, the trio offered their praise for China’s post Reform and Opening Up leap into modernity whilst also offering constructive criticism in areas ranging from the fact that the mega-motorways outside of central Chongqing were so new that the service stations along the route had in many cases not yet become fully operational, to the fact that drainage systems were also in need of an upgrade. The trio were also rather bemused at China’s modern roadway camera systems even though most major European and American roads also have similar camera systems.
The overall effect on viewers of the episode is that one sees a paradox about modern China that few shows convey. China is both a highly advanced first world nation while simultaneously being a developing nation – one classed by Mao himself as “third world” as recently as the 1970s. The reason for this is that due to China accomplishing in forty years what most other industrialised nations took centuries to accomplish (with the city-state of Singapore being a notable exception), China has grown tall in terms of development, but this growth spurt is by no means at an end point. In this sense, while China looks as though it has reached its peak development, China has no plans to rest on its laurels and as such, China continues to develop in spite of the fact that in many sectors, it is already a global leader.
Prior to his untimely assassination, US President John F. Kennedy invited the world to “come to [West] Berlin” and see with their own eyes, a city which in many ways was more of a showcase of American developmental capacity in the post-1945 era, than were many American cities themselves. Today, the message as subtly conveyed by The Grand Tour, is ‘come to China’ and see for one’s self what can be accomplished through tireless efforts, innovation and hard work within the context of an ever growing drive for Reform and Opening Up.
Finally, the episode of The Grand Tour proves another point. With an open mind, one can often be delighted by the unexpected. A show that could well have descended into nothing short of perpetual mocking of China actually offered a far more balanced view of what China is actually like than that of many western governments, including that of the US and of the UK.