Fighting Corruption in China, One License Plate at a Time

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HANGZHOU, China -- A photograph in the official newspaper of the People's Liberation Army over the weekend showed a grinning military officer standing proudly in his green uniform, as if he had single-handedly repelled a foreign invasion.

What he had accomplished was getting a new license plate, which he held aloft under a headline that said: "Holding a new license plate, sense of responsibility in heart."

In their latest attempt at cracking down on corruption, Chinese leaders are taking aim at license plates, specifically those on military vehicles. The military is issuing new plates for its vehicles and generally excluding luxury cars from receiving them. As of Wednesday, all military vehicles were supposed to be sporting the new plates.

The campaign has ignited significant interest because many Chinese complain about what appear to be regular abuses of privilege by people driving cars with military plates speeding through traffic, taking the emergency lane and running red lights, for instance.

Police officers generally do not stop cars with military plates. Drivers with the plates can also avoid paying road tolls and parking fees. Because of the privileges attached to them, military officers have been known to sell them or pass them on to friends and relatives. An entire industry has arisen devoted to the creation and sale of counterfeit military plates.

"It is hoped that the new license plate policy will help to reduce such irregularities and dispel public anger resulting from military license plate abuses and other forms of corruption," said an article by Xinhua, the state news agency.

Cars that will not receive military plates unless they are officially purchased as military equipment include models made by Bentley, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Porsche and Land Rover, Gen. Zhao Keshi, director of the army's General Logistics Department, said in the Xinhua report. Private vehicles and those of local government officials will be ineligible for the new plates, he said, and anyone caught leasing, lending or stealing the new plates will be punished.

Southern Daily, an official newspaper in Guangdong Province, reported in 2011 that real military plates good for six years can sell for nearly $45,000, while fake ones can go for about $100.

Chinese leaders have tried introducing new military plates before, but abuses have grown. Luxury sedans with military plates are spotted with frequency on city streets. Chinese take photos of the vehicles on their cellphones and post them online, which inspires vitriol against the army.

The military plates campaign, announced this year, is being attributed to Xi Jinping, the new leader of China. Mr. Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, has made fighting corruption a hallmark of the early months of his administration. Corruption is one of the main sources of animus directed by Chinese at the Communist Party, and Mr. Xi has said corruption threatens the very existence of the party -- and that he would pursue both "tigers and flies."

Burnishing the military's image is part of that campaign. Under Mao, the army had a reputation for honorable conduct and ascetic living, in contrast to the reputed decadence of officers of the Kuomintang, which the Communists fought to take over China. But in recent years, Communist military officers have become known for a high-flying lifestyle.

The Xinhua article said replacing the military plates is only "a starting point for the military and government to curb corruption. Those who use military vehicles must follow the government's call to improve their work style, reduce extravagance and cultivate a more frugal and hard-working image."

The military began issuing the new plates on Sunday. That day, the People's Liberation Army Daily ran an op-ed by Xin Shihong that said: "In this age of the Internet, the moment a military car drives out of the barracks, its every move is under public scrutiny. Every word and action of the driver and passengers are carefully monitored."

In Beijing, a complex of high-end apartments known as Central Park, military plates on luxury cars had once been common there, but the plates had mostly disappeared following the announcement of the policy.

China is a huge and growing market for luxury carmakers, and it is unclear how the new policy on military plates and the general crackdown on wasteful spending by officials will affect luxury car sales. Stephen Green, head of Greater China research for Standard Chartered Bank, said he had heard that government purchases accounted for roughly 10 to 15 percent of all car sales in China. He added he did not have a breakdown for luxury car sales.

Alistair Thornton, a China economist for IHS Global Insight, said the crackdown on luxury living was already being felt across the consumer economy.

"The impact of the crackdown is not devastating, but there is certainly softness in the retail sales data," he said. "The impact can most clearly be seen in the restaurant business, but there has been visible weakness in the auto market -- something that will inevitably deteriorate should the crackdown intensify."

Skeptics, too, are raising questions about the new policy on military plates. Dong Zengshou, part of the College of Electronic and Information Engineering at Taiyuan University of Science and Technology, wrote on his microblog on Wednesday that there needed to be more scrutiny over who was driving the luxury cars.

"Who are using these extravagant military cars?" he wrote. "When will military vehicles stop being used for private matters? If we don't answer these two questions, changing the license plates of these vehicles is nothing but a waste of money."

Contributors: Sue-Lin Wong contributed research from Beijing.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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