August 4, 2011:
China has increased the penalties for civilians caught using military uniforms, or forged military documents (including license plates). Now you can go to jail for up to ten years if caught doing this. Previous penalties (often aided by a bribe or two) amounted to a slap on the wrist. The problem, especially the use of forged license plates, is believed to cost the government over $150 million a year in lost taxes and fees.
It was five years ago that China first made a major effort to deal with this problem (gangsters pretending to be soldiers). In China, the military is something of a state-within-a-state. Civil officials, including police, must not interfere with military personnel, unless they are very obviously doing something illegal. This extends to off-duty military personnel, driving military vehicles. Actually, any vehicle with military license plates qualifies. Several gangs had discovered that stolen, or counterfeit, military license plates conferred a bit of immunity on whoever was driving a vehicle with such plates. Eventually, the police caught on. So, back in 2006, the government mobilized 20,000 personnel from the army and police to man checkpoints, and check for counterfeit or stolen military plates. In two months, this effort seized over a thousand stolen or counterfeit plates. In addition, 775 vehicles were seized and 123 people were arrested. The gangs often supplied the names of the officers who owned the stolen plates, to better enable the new owners to get past military or police security while using the stolen plates. As a result of all this, new procedures were enacted, to make it more difficult to use counterfeit or stolen military plates. The gangsters and corrupt officers found ways around this, and the fakes continued to flourish.
This is all part of a larger problem. The government knows that, until it cleans up military corruption, China will never have a truly modern and effective force. The attempt to halt the use of forged military plates and documents is just the latest of many recent attempts. Four years ago, the government began yet another major effort to find and eliminate the military corruption. At that time, the government was in the midst of cracking down on medical clinics pretending to be part of the military medical system. Why was that? It was because the Chinese armed forces are the last vestige of the old communist social system. That is, the army had its own factories, farms and medical system back in the day. Like all organizations in a communist nation, the military tried to be self-sufficient. That led to a lot of corruption.
Two decades ago, the government forced the generals to sell off the farms and factories (because the officers were spending too much time getting rich, and not enough time being soldiers.) But the military health network is still one of the best sources of medical care in the country, and companies have been pretending to be military medical clinics, and offering to sell, via mail, miracle cures. People are inclined to believe that, not only does the military have this extensive medical system that is apparently open to civilians (who have connections), but special drugs and miracle cures as well. The use of email spam, some print ads, a public desperate for cheaper medicines, and the too many crooks out there eager for a fast buck, keeps bringing these scams back stronger than ever. The government has been moving quickly to shut these swindles down, partly because the military already has a reputation for being corrupt and inefficient.
Most of the time, the government will leave military corruption alone, as long as the corrupt troops don't get any publicity. But with the proliferation of cell phones and Internet access, these corrupt practices rarely stay out of the public eye very long. So the government is accepting the shame of exposing these embarrassing practices. But new laws against the corruption are doubly embarrassing because it is an admission that, despite decades of efforts to curb corruption in the military, the bad guys are still winning.