May 18, 2013:
Earlier this year China has made it illegal for anyone to put military plates on most civilian cars. There were some exceptions for families of senior military officials. Now that law, which went into effect May 1st, has been modified to explicitly forbid the use of such plates on any luxury sports cares, 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). The military is also changing the procedure for issuing military plates, with all applications first run through a computer database of vehicles ineligible for those plates. The police will also use the automatic toll collection system (that scans plates) to detect such illegal use of plates. All this should put a big dent in the problem but probably won’t eliminate it entirely.
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. Two years ago 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 seven 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, 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. More than a decade ago 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, was 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.