The Chinese military's long and litigious affair with luxury cars is set to be tested by a ban on the use of military licence plates on 11 vehicle brands or models, according to a Ministry of Defence statement.
Under a new registration system, all military vehicles must be given new car plates by Wednesday, and blacklisted sedans include those made by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lincoln, Cadillac, Bentley, Jaguar and Porsche, as well as the Volkswagen Phaeton, according to a ministry website yesterday.
However, a ban on SUVs appeared more relaxed, with only the Land Rover, Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7 appearing on the banned list for military vehicles. There appeared to be no limit on the price of SUVs or their engines, but sedans must not cost more than 450,000 yuan (HK$566,750) or have engines larger than 3.0 litres.
The statement said that the military had been urged by President Xi Jinping to be more disciplined and to improve its public image, and that the issuing of military plates needed to be reformed.
Also next month, the vehicle management department of the People's Liberation Army will launch a campaign targeting counterfeit military plates and people who abuse authentic plates. Fake plates will be identified by video at highway toll stations and plate inspectors will also randomly visit areas, such as around nightclubs, to check for military vehicles.
However, the statement did not say what would happen after Wednesday to the banned luxury vehicles that were registered with old plates, and it was unclear whether SUVs of other luxury brands would also be banned.
Professor Chen Jierong , who teaches law at Sichuan University in Chengdu , said the new regulations would probably reduce the number of luxury cars with military plates on mainland streets, but only for a while. "I am sure many expensive cars with military plates will re-emerge soon," he said. "They have been banned five times over the last few decades, but more emerged after each ban. This time will be the same."
Chen noted that military plate inspectors were powerless to stop the leasing out of military-owned vehicles, with official plates, to civilians for non-military use.
"It is a common practice in Beijing for an Audi A8, with a real [military] plate, real paperwork and a real driver in a military uniform, to be leased out by a senior military officer to a businessman," he said. "The businessman pays 800,000 yuan a year but gets many benefits in return, such as giving others the impression that he has strong ties to the military. It happens not only in Beijing, but in every city."
He said military inspectors could do little when a case involves a higher-ranking officer. Even if a vehicle is seized, Chen said, a phone call by a general could foil any action.
Chen said people were furious about privileges associated with military vehicles, especially as the number of mainland drivers continues to grow rapidly.
Vehicles with military plates are allowed to run red lights, drive in emergency lanes and avoid road tolls, among some other privileges.
The root of the problem, Chen said, was a lack of transparency over the military's budget.
"China's military expense growth is one of the fastest in the world. But how much money has been spent on the purchase of expensive cars? The people want an answer," Chen said. "But I don't think they will get one any time soon, if ever."