Beijing targets military license plates in antigraft campaign

The Washington Post

License plates have become the latest casualty in the highly publicized anticorruption campaign of China’s new leaders.

First the lavish government banquets were cut, then government officials’ red-carpet receptions.

Now the target is military plates — long coveted items among government officials, allowing their owners to skirt traffic laws with impunity and skip toll fees.

Under a new policy set to take effect May 1, such plates will be more tightly controlled to crack down on officials who abuse them or hand them out as perks for privileged associates. In addition, military license plates will be banned outright for use on luxury cars such as Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Cadillacs and Jaguars, officials said.

For years, the sight of such cars with military plates has angered many Chinese, who regard them as one of the more blatant signs of government corruption. Many of the vehicles are believed to belong to friends or privileged children of military leaders, who often benefit from lucrative military enterprises or business deals, another source of public outrage.

The license plate crackdown is just the latest in a series of moves by new President Xi Jinping, aimed at reducing ostentation and corruption in government to soften growing resentment, anger and disillusionment toward the ruling Communist Party.

Critics, however, remain doubtful that the flood of new policies and publicity will result in fundamental, long-lasting changes to China’s culture of corruption.

“Does it mean if officials’ luxury cars can’t use military plates, they can use ordinary plates? Why isn’t the order simply for the military not to buy any luxury cars?” posted one microblog commenter using the handle “Deep Diving.”

“It’s no use to only change the plate. The person who drives the military vehicles should change their attitude,” posted another blogger.

Military corruption is one of the most difficult areas for Xi to tackle. China’s leaders have long depended on the military to support their rule, and Xi has moved deliberately in his first months at the top to strengthen his military ties. The license plates represent a way for him to crack down on the visible symptoms of corruption without taking on its more tangled roots, such as military-related state enterprises.

In an announcement in various state media over the weekend, authorities detailed the various changes that will take effect over the next month. Existing plates will be canceled by the end of April. The new plates may contain a type of chip making them easier to track and more difficult to counterfeit.

In a state media interview, Gen. Zhao Keshi, head of general logistics for the People’s Liberation Army, said new replacement plates will not be issued to the many private vehicles belonging to military officials.

In one interview with state-run Xinhua news agency on Sunday, Xiang Yang, director of traffic and transportation logistics for the Chinese Air Force, called the new policy a “severe test” for the military, acknowledging that it was initiated, at least in part, because of public pressure.

He called the new era of Internet scrutiny of public officials a double-edged sword. It has helped in some ways, he said, “but also hurt the image and reputation of the military.”

The overall anticorruption campaign has set back the luxury industry that has boomed for years in China on the wallets of wealthy government officials.

High-end liquor companies selling drinks such as imported Scotch whisky and expensive Chinese white wine have taken a hit. Upscale restaurants are reporting dwindling business, as are sellers of traditional luxury gifts among Chinese bureaucrats — pens, cigarettes and watches.

But the potential effect of the new license plate rules for the luxury auto industry is not yet clear. Some online skeptics noted that the new policy, while banning the use of military license plates on the Audi Q7, does not put limits on any other Audi models. In recent years, the black Audi sedan with tinted windows, in particular, has become practically a must-have vehicle for even low-level provincial officials.