Campaign to end abuse of official number plates won't be easy

Attempt to stop decades of misuse of military plates faces twin hurdles of corrupt officials and crafty forgers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 5:49am

What is a military number plate? In China, it is much more than a set of numbers to identify a specific vehicle. It is a blatant sign of power, privilege, money and corruption.

The mainland's new leaders are now targeting the abuse of military number plates as part of their highly publicised anti-corruption campaign.

Under a set of rules to take effect on May 1, the People's Liberation Army will impose tighter controls over access to military plates, and they will be banned from use on luxury cars such as Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Cadillacs and Jaguars, officials said.

Whether such rules will work remains to be seen. After all, this is not the first time the PLA has cracked down on the abuse of military plates. In fact, soon after Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, the PLA decided to introduce a new set of plates, but the abuse has become more rampant and blatant over the past 10 years. The increase in abuse has become a rallying point for rising anger against corruption in the military, and the top brass of the PLA are clearly worried the military's image has been damaged.

The sight of cars with military plates zooming along emergency shoulder lanes past cars stuck in gridlocked traffic, flouting traffic regulations and skipping tolls has become common in Beijing and other cities.

Ironically, the power associated with the plates stems from the fact that all of China's former and incumbent leaders are driven around in black Audi sedans with military plates, apparently because they are served and guarded by a special PLA garrison, a service that dates back to the civil war years.

In addition, the PLA has allowed its branches - the navy, air force and army - to issue their own number plates, differentiated by a red Chinese character on the plates.

The fact that members of the civilian police forces have no right to punish drivers of military vehicles for traffic violations has given rise to rampant abuses on the road.

One blatant example occurs regularly on the eastbound Changan Boulevard. The drivers of vehicles with military plates turn left at one of the intersections under a "No Left Turn" sign, ignoring the traffic policemen standing by, because it is the easiest way to drive into the Zhongnanhai compound where the nation's top leaders live and work.

Moreover, for inexplicable reasons, military vehicles are exempted from paying highway tolls and parking fees nationwide, which adds another incentive for abuse of the plates.

More and more Chinese cities are trying to reduce traffic congestion by barring certain vehicles from the road on certain days according to the last digit of their number plate, but vehicles with military plates are exempt.

It's not hard to see why military plates have become so popular with non-military drivers, given the power and privilege they bestow. Not only are the friends and relatives of the military brass and the nation's leaders driven in sedans with military plates, but local government officials and businessmen have joined the bandwagon.

The fact that military plates adorn such luxury cars as Rolls-Royces, Maseratis, Porsches, BMW convertibles and Range Rovers cruising the streets has further riled many ordinary mainlanders angry about the widespread corruption in the military.

A hugely profitable grey market has sprung up nationwide, selling genuine and fake military plates.

There is anecdotal evidence that many high-ranking military officers have leased military number plates to businessmen for handsome annual fees. Mainlanders without such good connections go to traders who forge plates and the accompanying fake military identity papers.

Less than two years ago, the trial of a farmer who used fake military number plates to evade tolls caused a nationwide uproar. The man was sentenced to life in prison by a Henan court for evading 3.68 million yuan (HK$4.55 million) in expressway tolls from 2008 to 2009.

Some mainland media reports suggested at the time that he had leased the plates from a military garrison in Henan, but this was never confirmed.

Following the public outcry, another Henan court reheard the case and shortened the prison term from life to 21/2 years.

The military is not the only abuser of number plates. Police forces and regional governments have also issued plates containing a special designation or digit that enables drivers of the cars carrying them to ignore traffic rules and which alert traffic police to look the other way when violations take place.

According to state media reports, the new military plates will contain hi-tech elements, including laser marks, to make forging them more difficult.

But that is unlikely to help much because forgers quickly upgrade their own technology, as shown in the past.

If the PLA is serious about tackling the problem, it should remove all the privileges accorded to the plates and subject the military cars to the same rules as those governing civilian cars. But mainlanders are unlikely to see that happen any time soon.