1. A while back, there was a crackdown on government officials and their extravagant cars. What do mid- to high-level officials ride in now?
The crackdown resulted in three things:
a) The government officials changing their license plate from the "official plates" (i.e. white and red for Military) to more normal-looking blue-plates, to be more discreet
b) Most of the high-end government cars, such as Audi A8 W12s (Chinese government was once their no.1 buyer of W12s!), debadging or mis-badging them (i.e. an A8L to an A4L!)
c) The cars which look too extravagant to be de-commissioned (i.e. Most Benzes, Range Rovers, Porsche Cayennes, BMW X5s) and scrapped to "hide evidence"
Basically, the officials now drive either HongQi H7s which are purchased new (most with blue-plates, to maintain discretion as it's still an expensive car), hang onto their older Audi A6Ls and A8Ls and keep in top of maintenance, or if well-connected lease new Audi A6Ls through third-party leasing agencies.
2. I see quite a few 1990s Western cars in your Instagram feed. How did they end up in China?
Those cars were able to be imported by foreigners or foreign-companies, from the early 90s until about 2007 when this policy stopped. At that time, these cars all received a black license plate rather than the regular blue plates. Furthermore, some were brought in by embassies, then sold and re-registered privately through some good connections.
3. Are there any foreign classic cars (1950s-1980s) in China? If not, is it because of draconian import laws? If so, how come we don’t hear about them?
There are extremely few foreign classics from before the 1980s here. I know of two Mercedes 600s from the mid 70s, but these are owned by the central government and kept in Beidahe (a government guesthouse in Beijing). Furthermore, there are a few W123 E-classes running around, which were bought and assembled by FAW as CKD kits in the late 80s for government use. Otherwise, because of the restrictions on used-car imports, there aren't more than a handful.
4. You know a lot about Chinese classics. Is there a reliable resource online in English?
I work in the car industry here in China, so usually get bits and pieces of info from "old-hands" from our joint-ventures FAW and SAIC here! Otherwise, there is a guy called Eric who has written what I've heard some really good books about classic Chinese cars, and he visits China at least once a year to do some studies.
5. Sometimes, I see exotic cars from faraway cities in Beijing. Were these trucked over or driven? What is the quality of highways in China (outside of the Far West and Tibet)?
The quality of the highways are actually fantastic - in the old-days before we had proving grounds built in China we used to do high-speed testing on the newly-built highways before they were opened to public, and they were smooth as can be even at 120mph +. I would say the quality of the roads in the South are a little better, and industrial Provinces like Jinan a little poorer because of all the overloaded trucks tearing up the roads. But generally the highways get re-paved at least once-a-year, to both stimulate the construction-based economy here but also to keep the workers employed.
6. Is there a rare car that you know exists in China, but which you have yet to see in person?
Yep - those two Mercedes 600s I haven't seen, but would very much like to. I also know of a 190E 2.3-16 Mercedes in Tianjin, and a W124 500E in Beijing which I've yet to see!
7. Is it hard to import a relatively new (20 years or newer) car into China? How is it done?
It was possible before Xi Jingping came to power, but now it's almost impossible. The exceptions are:
a) If it's imported by the military for evaluation
b) If it's imported by an embassy
8. Are there any car museums in China worth visiting?
Yep, the Shanghai classic car museum in AnTing district is very cool, as well as the FAW museum in Changchun! There was also a fantastic museum in Dalian, but this was closed down after the owner got thrown in prison I heard!
9. Why haven’t the Chinese been a greater presence at classic car auctions in the West?
Basically because the Chinese culture still follows the notion that newer = better, and there isn't really an appreciation of classic cars also because most rich Chinese cannot identify with them (i.e., there was no racing history in China unlike Japan, no "first supercar" memory, etc).
10. Why do you love cars?
I love the fact that each car has a story to tell, in terms of both the thought and passion behind design and building it, but also the emotional buzz you can get out driving a car within an environment it's designed to excel in.