Morale: Tech Is Overrated


July 7, 2016: Corruption in the Chinese military has been a problem for thousands of years but the current government is making a major, but largely ineffective, effort to curb these bad practices. There have been some effective innovations. For example, the government wants to get more users for its new Baidu satellite navigation system (similar to the U.S. GPS) and began installing Baidu in military vehicles. This made sense as the first major use of GPS was during the 1990-91 Gulf War where the first GPS devices provide their worth by enabling military vehicles to easily navigate through deserts. GPS later became popular with drivers and managers of commercial trucks. For the driver it made it easier to avoid getting lost. For the managers, who gave those GPS receivers a satellite communications link, it was now possible to track trucks and know immediately if one had an accident or had gone off its route for some reason. It was this last use that appealed to Chinese anti-corruption officials since it made it easy to see when a military vehicle was going somewhere it was not supposed to be.

Misappropriation of military vehicles had been a growing problem for the Chinese military and there seemed no way to curb it. Networked Baidu receivers might not be the perfect solution, as the corrupt troops are very good at coming up with novel ways to foil anti-corruption efforts. Still, any help in this area is useful because not only is corruption in the use of military vehicles costly but it often gets into the news, despite the many Chinese media censors trying to prevent that.

The misuse of military vehicles became media-worthy in the late 1990s because of the growing problems with the misuse of military license plates. By early 2013 the government was desperate for a solution to military license plate abuse and early that year the government declared it illegal for anyone to put military plates on most civilian cars. There were some exceptions for families of senior military officials.

Later in 2013 the law was modified to explicitly forbid the use of such plates on any luxury sports cars, even (and especially) those owned by senior officers or their kin. A list of car models banned from using plates was issued, in addition to a general prohibition to putting those plates on any civilian passenger car costing over $73,000 and with a large engine (over three liters/184 cubic inches). Such cars should not be something even a senior military officer could afford and when an expensive sports car was spotted with military plates and being driven by the son of a senior officer, even state controlled media could not resist. Even if they did so many Chinese had cell phones with cameras that the embarrassing pictures got widely circulated any way.

After 2013 the military also changed the procedure for issuing military plates, with all applications first run through a computer database of vehicles ineligible for those plates. The police also used the automatic toll collection system (that scans plates) to detect such illegal use of plates. All this put a big dent in the problem but didn’t eliminate it entirely. The Baidu units in military and government vehicles will help.

This is all in response to increasing incidents of luxury cars carrying military license plates getting involved in accidents or criminal acts. The vehicles are often driven by the playboy sons of senior officials. This is part of yet another effort to crack down on the manufacture and use of fake (or real) military ID by civilians. The new rules are meant to halt incidents where the kin of corrupt military officials drive around family luxury cars equipped with military plates.

It’s not just license plates that are a problem. In 2011 China increased the penalties for civilians caught using military uniforms or forged military documents (including license plates). Penalties were increased to ten years in jail for this sort of thing. 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. These rules were aimed mostly at criminals but there are more embarrassing incidents involving the children of generals and admirals. The government feels the embarrassment much more than the financial loss.

It was in 2006 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, are discouraged from interfering 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. Back in the 1990s several gangs 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. Despite passing new laws and orders to "crack down" on the use of fake military ID, the problem continues. The fact that public exhortations to enforce the old laws, and the new punishments, were ignored tells you something about the resilience of corruption in China. This is another reminder to the Chinese people that their government is not very good at fighting corruption. The average Chinese gets reminded of this in a very personal way on a regular basis.


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