China curbs use of coveted military license plates in latest anti-corruption move

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters - Under a new policy taking effect on May 1, license plate on vehicles used by Chinese military officials will be banned outright for use on luxury cars.

BEIJING — License plates are the latest casualty in the highly publicized anti-corruption campaign of China’s new leaders.

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

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

Under a policy taking effect May 1, such plates will be more tightly controlled, part of a crackdown 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 thought 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 the latest in a series of moves by China’s 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?” posted one microblog commenter using the handle “Deep Diving.” “Why isn’t the order simply for the military not to buy any luxury cars?”

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

Military corruption is one of the most difficult issues 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 plate crackdown represents a way for him to target the visible symptoms of corruption without taking on its more tangled roots, such as military-related state enterprises.

In an announcement carried by various state media over the weekend, authorities detailed the changes that will take effect in 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 replacement plates would not be issued to the many private vehicles belonging to military officials.

In an interview with the 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 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 anti-corruption 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 clear. Some online skeptics noted that the new policy, while banning the use of military license plates on the Audi Q7, did 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.

Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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