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China is banning the use of privileged military license plates on BMWs, Porsches and other luxury cars in an attempt to crack down on abuses and give the People's Liberation Army's reputation a much-needed boost.
Luxury vehicles carrying military plates with their distinctive red Chinese letters are a common sight in China, eliciting deep cynicism among a public convinced that government officials and ranking military officers abuse their privileges to enrich their families and lord it over ordinary citizens.
Military plates allow the owners to avoid paying tolls, parking fees and speeding tickets and until now, haven't been limited to official military vehicles.
That is set to change under the new rules requiring all vehicles now using military plates must re-register by Wednesday. Private cars and luxury vehicles will be excluded, according to regulations published over the weekend in the official People's Liberation Army Daily newspaper. It named several blacklisted luxury brands, including BMW, Porsche, Mercedes Benz and Cadillac. Regardless of marque, all vehicles with engine capacity above 3 liters or costing more than 450,000 yuan ($73,000) will be barred from carrying military plates.
Along with private vehicles, those belonging to local government bodies or officials who hold concurrent positions in the government and armed forces will be excluded.
The move also seeks to rein in the use of fake military plates. Those issued by the military and paramilitary People's Armed Police come in scores of varieties, and counterfeits are common. Chinese newspapers recently carried a story about a long-haul trucker who had painted his vehicle camouflage, fitted it with fake military plates, and claimed to be carrying missile parts.
"All of society has high hopes for the 'plate changing campaign,'" The PLA Daily said in an editorial published Sunday. "This dictates that the policy cannot be allowed to fail and must be carried out through practical steps to win the people's trust."
The policy was ordered by President Xi Jinping, who also heads the Central Military Commission and has made anti-corruption a hallmark of his leadership. Xi has mobilized personal friends within the officer corps to lecture against graft, and introduced measures promoting frugality such as banning alcoholic beverages at military banquets.
With its vast network of subsidies, tax exemptions, and allowances, the PLA is commonly held to be rife with corruption. Jobs and promotions are frequently acquired through bribery, with those governing responsibility for housing and other budgetary matters commanding the highest prices. That has led some to question the PLA's fighting ability, despite the vast spending on modern jet fighters, submarines and other modern weaponry that has pushed China into second place in global defense budgets behind the U.S.
The PLA won acclaim in the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and U.S. forces in Korea, but hasn't fought a major action in decades and is largely untested in actual combat.
Making matters more complicated, the PLA is ultimately loyal to the ruling Communist Party rather than the government of China, and top officials have repeatedly dismissed calls to make the force more independent and accountable.