How would you feel if you had just five hours to choose, buy and register your car – or risk never getting one at all?
That was the situation for some locals in the eastern city of Hangzhou last Tuesday night after the local government confirmed that it was drastically reducing the number of licence plates that it issues, with almost immediate effect.
Despite the late hour – the announcement came at 7pm – affluent citizens flooded the city’s car dealerships to buy vehicles before the new lottery system took effect at midnight.
Footage on local TV showed showrooms crammed with buyers willing to snap up anything they could get their hands on.
“There are too many people. The model I want is already sold out next door. We’re worried because time is running out,” one customer bemoaned to Zhejiang province’s 6 Channel.
The Hangzhou Youth Times quoted a man surnamed Wang as saying: “They have put up the prices but I’ll have to pay them. I am worried if I don’t buy tonight, I won’t be able to get a car at all.”
Rumours that the city was planning to introduce the curbs to improve congestion and air quality began circulating in the media in February. But Hangzhou’s authorities repeatedly denied the speculation, saying licence limitation rules were not suitable for Zhejiang’s provincial capital.
The city’s inhabitants were suspicious, however, and car sales rose dramatically, up some 30% in February. By late March some buyers were walking into dealerships and offering to buy up the entire stock.
A man named Jin who purchased 125 Chang’an mini vans in one go told the Youth Times that he was buying them as an investment: “If they limit car licences in the future, I can make a profit by selling these cars with their plates,” he crowed.
Speculative behaviour like this is probably why the government tried to keep a lid on their plans till the last minute. Unfortunately they weren’t successful as images of the document authorising the restrictions were leaked to the press. Even the state-controlled media was highly critical, saying Hangzhou hadn’t learnt from cities like Tianjin and Guangzhou which also announced licence plate restrictions at short notice.
“Hangzhou not only failed to learn from their mistakes, it insisted on carrying this out in the worst possible way,” the Beijing Times wrote.
Hangzhou is the sixth city in China to introduce licence plate restrictions. Like Beijing and Guiyang, it will now operate a lottery format for licences, while Shanghai does it by auction. Tianjin and Guangzhou offer both systems.
According to government ministers, residents of Hangzhou can at least take comfort from one statistic: with a one-in-30 probability of winning the licence lottery, they will have more than double the chance of a would-be driver in Beijing.
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