A campaign, named as "exposing luxury military cars", has drawn people's attention to the misuse of military vehicles, a lingering problem that has never been resolved.
It was initiated by Yu Jianrong during the Spring Festival, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Yu was contacted by many Web users, who sent him photos of luxury "military cars" they took by chance, such as Bentleys, Maseratis, BMWs and Land Rovers.
He was stunned at these luxury cars. "It really broadened my perspective. Some friends used to tell me their cars are worth over a million yuan, and I thought they were just boasting. Now I believe them, but why do these cars have military plates?" Yu questioned on Weibo.
The lowest price for a Maserati Quattroporte is much more than a million yuan ($160,700).
Besides, what has impressed the public is that military cars "turn up" too frequently, either driving precariously in the street or parked casually at places where they are not supposed to, such as scenic spots, restaurants and entertainment venues.
The reason behind this is that military cars enjoy privileges which private cars do not. They park for free, don't pay highway tolls and can run red lights.
And they are not alone. All these advantages have tempted private owners, beyond the other fact that driving a military car can be used to show off.
Owners who have connections "equip" their non-military cars with real military plates, and those without connections use fake plates.
Just because of the privilege, real military cars are used too often. "Is the military car for you to pick up your wife? Could military cars be taken for private use? Can taxpayers' money be spent this way?" Ou Shaokun questioned a solider in uniform in Guangzhou in late February when he saw him park a military car in the street while accompanied with a woman.
Also called Uncle Ou, he's a laid-off resident in Guangzhou living on subsistence allowance, and is well-known for supervising public cars being used for private purposes.
Fake plate bonanza
While people are stunned by the level of luxury at the cost of taxpayers' money, military cars ignoring traffic rules has long been a fact of life.
Xie Jiakun, a traffic policeman from Funing county, Yunnan Province told the Global Times what he encounters daily.
If a military car has an accident, Xie has no right to deal with the driver as they do with normal drivers. "We either tell them the importance of obeying traffic laws or report the accident to the military department they work for," Xie told the Global Times.
Funing, located in the southeast of Yunnan, borders Vietnam and is a base for Chinese ground troops. "We often go to the army to give lessons to soldiers, especially for fresh recruits," he said, adding that they teach what kind of rules military cars could possibly violate, and how to deal with disputes incurred between military drivers and civilians.
He said traffic cops can do little to crack down on fake military plates. "Even if I happen to see a car with seemingly fake plate numbers, it would be hard for me to prove it is fake," he said. Xie has no right to stop a car even if he doubts its legitimacy, as long as the car doesn't violate any traffic laws. "What if it was a real one on duty? I can't afford the consequences," Xie explained.
The way to check whether military cars are real or fake is for the traffic police to work with the army. "Our cooperation usually takes places during holidays, especially long holidays," he said, noting that this collaboration should take place more often.
Police have access to the Traffic Management System, in which they can get information about a non-military car after inputting its plate number, such as its make, color, and owner. But they have no information about military cars, which can only be accessed inside the army. This creates chances for fake military cars to multiply.
No real authority
Xie's concern is echoed by a Global Times source inside the PLA, speaking on condition of anonymity. He agrees that the model of police working with the army does work, but is not practiced enough.
The army is governed very strictly, especially in big cities, as are its cars, he told the Global Times, but the situation may be different in remote areas.
There are very strict criteria for a real military car. A plate number is examined rigorously before being approved, and there are set quotas for the number of military vehicles, an army insider told China News Week.
When a military car is used, the driver must have four certificates together, a driving permit, driver's license, soldier ID and a dispatching card by the army's vehicle management department.
However, this doesn't mean there are no problems. Some vehicles that are not for direct military use enjoy the same privileges such as organizations or enterprises attached to the army that use real military plate numbers.
Most of their owners are people with privileges or performers from army art troupes. "They have all the necessary procedures to go through legal channels, and most drive luxury cars, which military leaders don't use," he said, adding that a well-known table tennis coach drives an Audi Q7 with a real military plate number.
The Audi A6 is usually the highest level of car brand for military officials, he said, adding that other brands with military plate numbers such as BMW are definitely fake, since the army does not use such cars.
The army enjoying privileges should be limited to wartime or emergencies. "Privileges should not be granted in peacetime," Song Zhongping, a well-known military affairs commentator, told the Global Times.
Only in this way could the privileges of military cars be curbed, rendering fake plate numbers used by non-military cars useless, he added. Furthermore, he suggested that military cars should have to pay the same road fees and tolls as non-military cars, thus removing some of the temptation.
Military plates all contain chips that carry the information of the vehicle.
But the problem is that strict rules only govern those cars in the army, while cars for non-military use bearing military numbers are beyond the army's ability to control.
People who are involved in making fake plate numbers or caught using them should be punished severely, says Song. For him, this is a financial crime as counterfeiters make profits from buyers seeking to enjoy the privilege of military cars.
Some crackdowns have happened. For example, In Bayan Nur City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on February 4, an Audi car with fake military plate number was stopped by local traffic police. The driver said he did not belong to the army and that the plates were borrowed. The driver was fined 2,000 yuan and the fake plates were confiscated.
However, these penalties are not harsh enough to act as a deterrent. The current traffic law stipulates that those making or using fake plates can be detained for less than 15 days and fined between 2,000 and 5,000 yuan. However, in case of criminal conviction on these charges, the punishment is much harsher, with guilty parties facing three to seven years in jail.
But the biggest problem may be that the army's image has been tarnished and relations between the army and the public have been severely affected, said Song. Members of the public who are unaware of the spate of fake military plates often lambast the military when fake number-wielding cars have accidents.
A man named Fang, 30, knocked down and killed four workers while they were working in a tunnel in Guangzhou on October 30, 2011. Fang was driving a car bearing fake plates saying his car was an Air Force vehicle.
After the accident, the PLA Air Force set up 42 supervising sites across the country to crack down on fake plates.
An example to follow
Zhu Qichao, a professor at the National University of Defense Technology, was deeply impressed by the thriftiness of the British army when he was a visiting scholar in King's College London. During his time there, he was invited for a seminar at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, a British military academic establishment in Oxfordshire, the PLA Daily reported.
According to the report, Zhu was surprised that the car sent to pick him up was not a military car, but an ordinary taxi, exemplifying the British government's strict supervision over the use of official vehicles.
This attitude was taken up by Xi Jinping at a conference in December last year, at which he said that vehicles used by the Party, the army, the police and government departments should not only be treated equally as private cars on the road, but also should set examples in obeying traffic laws and be governed strictly since they were purchased with public funds.
In late December 2012, shortly after Xi's speech, the General Staff Department of the PLA issued a notification, ordering that military cars be strictly governed in order to maintain the army's image.
A new style of military plate will be used after May to try and curb the problems military plates have caused, said Geng Yansheng, the spokesman of the Ministry of National Defense, at a press conference on February 28.