As she sat in her favourite Hunan restaurant, Liang Xiuli said: 'We had planned to buy a Japanese car last year because we thought the prices would come down . . . But the prices did not fall, so my daughter has stuck with the Chinese car she has used for the past six years. 'Santana cars are easy to steal. A friend bought a Jetta and there was water on the floor. You do not find that in a Japanese car.' Like many others, Mrs Liang, a 50-year-old musician in a state orchestra, prefers foreign cars to Chinese ones. She hopes the country's entry into the World Trade Organisation will help bring down car prices. From January 1 last year, Beijing cut the tariff on imported cars with engines larger than three litres from 80 per cent to 50.7 per cent, and from 70 per cent to 43.8 per cent for smaller cars. As a result, the number of imported cars surged last year by 77 per cent to 127,394 - including 70,329 passenger cars, an annual increase of 50 per cent. Strangely, the prices of imported cars did not come down. This was due to an official quota on expenses for imported cars and car parts. The policy gives preference to domestic manufacturers, including foreign-invested joint ventures, to import the parts and components they need. Given the import restriction, the black market price for a quota to import a single model last year rose from 50,000 yuan (HK$47,175) in 2001 to as much as 150,000 yuan. The exorbitant prices and the difficulty of obtaining import quotas made it hard for dealers to offer cars to Mrs Liang and others like her. The Japanese government has asked Beijing to abolish the quota system as soon as possible. But an official of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation has ruled this out. 'The system is a way of protecting our domestic industry from being overwhelmed by foreign cars. It is allowed by the WTO,' he said. His ministry has set the quota for this year at US$9.1 billion (HK$71.2 billion), up 15 per cent from last year - which the Japanese say is far too low. Mrs Liang and her daughter still have a long wait ahead of them.