Simanaitis Says

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THE CHINESE have been entrepreneurs for millennia; they’ve been communists for less than 64 years. This is confirmed by recent happenings concerning Chinese license plates for automobiles. I add my own limited knowledge of the matter based on a single visit to Shanghai in 2004.

According to an April 28, 2013, Reuters report (, China’s new leadership has cracked down on plush luxury cars being fitted with military plates, hitherto allowing them to run red lights, part the traffic ahead by flashing their headlights and even scam free gasoline.

Chinese naval

Chinese naval officers display military plates, old and new. The old one, on the right, is expiring. New ones are no longer legal on vehicles deemed luxuriantly decadent. Image from Reuters, April 28, 2013.

These plates have been given to family members and friends of military personnel. From May 1, 2013, however, restrictions are tighter, the plates have embedded protection against counterfeiting and they’re no longer legit on high-end cars. Affected are those from Bentley, BMW, Cadillac, Jaguar, Lincoln, Porsche and Volkswagen’s Phaeton. (A pity about this last one; China is one place where it wasn’t glued to the showroom floor.)

Audi’s sedans are okay; its A7 isn’t. Neither are selected SUVs, nor any vehicle exceeding 450,000 RMB (about $73,000).

One goal, according to the People’s Liberation Army’s General Logistical Department, is “to maintain social harmony, stability and the reputation of the military.”


Not that the rest of automotive licensing in China isn’t a shambles. See for some idea of this. In particular, there are quota systems in four areas, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou (think Canton) and Guiyang. In Shanghai, for instance, you pay 2000 RMB ($324) just to enter a monthly auction for the right to buy a plate. Officials test price sensitivity through several rounds of bidding, then set the license fee to use up that month’s allotment of plates. Recently, the fee was 90,000 RMB (around $14,600).

Just for the plate, mind. The car comes extra.

This has all but squeezed out Chinese automakers from the Shanghai market. The wealthy don’t want a Geely Panda, for instance, at a measily 41,800 RMB ($6780). And, indeed, foreign cars make up 90 percent of Shanghai’s new car sales.


You’ve spent $14,600 on a plate. Will it hang on a sweet little Geely Panda or a BMW 7-Series Steinway & Sons?


Beijing’s license auction is more akin to a raffle, with the odds something like 80:1 against winning. People try for a plate, lose out, then save up for the next auction. In time, they’ve saved enough for a neat Audi or Buick, not a local make.

There are other oddities. Plate numbers are now randomly assigned by computer. Yet there is gaming for auspicious numbers, 6s, 8s and 9s being lucky. A plate reading 88868 can garner a lesser plate—complete with car.

And, as I learned when I visited Shanghai back in 2004, plate numbers used to be assigned based on a person’s importance in the political scheme of things. An influential local’s Buick carried Shanghai 300. Like a real-life Monopoly game, this relatively low number gave him Free Parking, Get Out Of Jail Free and other motoring spiffs.

And they call themselves communists. Really now. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013


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This entry was posted on April 30, 2013 by in Driving it Today and tagged , .
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