To foreign eyes, the sight of a black Maserati Quattroporte driving through the streets of Beijing probably looks innocuous enough. But one irksome detail would jump out for most Chinese onlookers – that the luxury Italian saloon is sporting military licence plates.
Taken over Chinese New Year, the photo of the car in question is one of scores of images uploaded to weibo and other social networking sites in protest over this very visible form of corruption.
Military plates confer an aura of untouchability for drivers, allowing them to run red lights, speed though heavy traffic and park on yellow lines without punishment. Other official perks include not having to queue (or pay) at highway toll booths.
In recent years the plates – very distinctive because of their white background and red and black lettering – have been seen on vehicles that can make no claim to a military function. As one weibo user quipped after spotting a Porsche with military plates speeding down a busy road: “Where is he off to in such a rush? To liberate the Diaoyu islands? [the disputed territories that Japan calls the Senkakus]”
How do cars like the Porsche get their plates? This is a question that netizens have been posing, often appealing to the wisdom of Yu Jianrong a widely admired professor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. As Yu puts it there are several possible explanations. One is that the army is buying these cars at vast expense – Bentleys, BMWs and Mercedes and the like – for its top officers. Another explanation is that some members of the military are somehow wealthy enough to buy the luxury cars. In theory, they shouldn’t be able to afford them.
A third possibility is that the plates are simply faked, either with the connivance of someone in the army or manufactured independently by enterprising civilians.
Of course, none of the above options have improved the mood of most ordinary citizens.
But is the government listening to the public frustration? Yes, it seems so. Last week Zhao Keshi, the head of logistics for the People’s Liberation Army, announced that the military will be issuing new licence plates as of May 1 and that certain brands of car – including Mercedes, Bentley, Jaguar, Porsche and BMW – will be banned from using them.
Audi, still the car of choice for most Chinese officials, will be eligible, as long as the vehicle is of A6 class or lower.
In addition the new plates will be equipped with a computer chip, the Beijing News reported, so that they are harder to fake.
While many netizens were sceptical that the new rules would actually result in changes, some celebrated the fact that the photo campaign on Sina Weibo had forced the government to act.
“This is the development of social democracy,” cheered one user. “People Win!” was the simple message posted by another.
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