Even the police are driving Porsches.
Chinese officials love their cars — big, fancy, expensive cars. A chocolate-colored Bentley worth $560,000 is cruising the streets of Beijing with license plates indicating it is registered to Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party headquarters. The armed police, who handle riots and crowd control, have the same model of Bentley in blue.
And just in case it needs to go racing off to war, the Chinese army has a black Maserati that sells in China for $330,000.
“Corruption on wheels is an accurate description of this problem,” said Wang Yukai, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing, who has been advocating restrictions on officials’ cars for years.
A remnant of a decades-old party perks system, the luxe wheels are a conspicuous target of growing public outrage over the privileges of the elite.
Armed with cellphone cameras, angry Chinese have started posting photographs of the expensive government cars — identifiable by their license plates — on a microblog site called Anti-Official Cars Extravagance that was set up in August. (Government censors shut down an earlier version of the same site.)
The Chinese government doesn’t release figures, but automobile industry analysts here say that spending for cars tops $15 billion annually, while some scholars believe the figure is many times that amount.
Even at more conservative estimates, the figure is greater than that allocated for low-income housing or for scientific research and development.
Not to speak of the funding for school buses.
Anger over fancy government cars has been piqued by a spate of tragic accidents in recent months involving overloaded school buses. In the worst of them, 21 kindergartners were killed in Gansu province in November in a van that was designed for nine passengers but was carrying 62 children.
“Every time I see a school bus accident and think about the great many government Audi A6s on the street, I shake my head and sigh,” one microblogger who uses the name Minxingdie wrote after the accident.
The Audi A6 is the semiofficial car of the Chinese Communist Party; the German automaker’s parent, Volkswagen, was an early entry in the 1980s into the Chinese market. According to industry analysts, there are more than 100,000 A6s in China, about 20% of them owned by the government. Each car costs $50,000 to $100,000, depending on engine size.
For the cops, luxury SUVs are all the rage. In the southern city of Guangzhou, police were photographed driving a Mercedes-Benz SUV, while those in the northeastern province of Jilin have another deluxe SUV, the Porsche Cayenne.
“No wonder there’s no money left for school buses!” remarked one contributor to the car-outrage website. The commentators were particularly scathing about the expensive cars with military plates. “Why does the military need sports cars? Will it help them run faster when there’s a war?”
Photographs also showed cars with government, police and military plates clearly being used on personal business: dropping off children at school, at a shopping mall, on a family vacation.
“You can’t get evidence about other kinds of corruption, such as people accepting envelopes of cash, but this you easily see for yourself,” explained the Guangzhou-based activist who started the website in response to emailed questions. He did not wish to be identified.
The high spending on cars, said Ren Jianmin, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, is the result of a system set up by the Communist Party in the 1940s to allocate perks to ranking members.
“The system dictates that once an official reaches a certain level, he must be equipped with certain things, such as cars and, in the past, houses,” Ren said. “This system led to a huge number of government cars. “
Although in theory a government car is for official business, most bureaucrats treat the car as their own to do with as they wish. Regulations that limit the use of the car to working hours are widely disregarded.
“The Chinese officials don’t distinguish between business and personal use,” Ren said.
In addition, use of the car engenders more opportunities for corruption. Once they have a car, officials will hire a chauffeur and run up large bills for gasoline and so-called repairs.
“Somebody could go to the repair shop and buy a TV for himself and get reimbursed from the government” for repairs, Ren said. “Many pay little, but they get reimbursed a lot. There are a lot of secrets in the receipts.”
Nervous about heightened sensitivity to corruption, the government is trying to rein in the most extravagant cars. New regulations being drafted this year are supposed to limit the base price of cars to $11,000 for most bureaucrats, and restrict the engine size of government cars and the ranks of those entitled to a private vehicle and driver.
“Below the rank of minister or deputy minister, they won’t be entitled to an exclusive car and will have to use a car from the fleet,” said Zhang Yu, managing director of Automotive Foresight, a Shanghai industry consulting firm.
But this isn’t the first initiative to limit government car purchases.
In 2004, municipal governments in the cities of Chengdu, Nanjing and Hangzhou sold off many of their official cars, telling bureaucrats that they could apply for reimbursements for rentals when needed. Nevertheless, spending on government cars has enjoyed double-digit growth since then.
“They have been trying to tackle this problem since the 1980s, but it never goes away,” said Wang, of the Academy of Governance.
Government officials have proved ingenious, however, at getting around the regulations. One trick is to change the metal emblems on the cars to make them look cheaper than they actually are.
“Whenever a new regulation comes out, we get customers from the government,” said Han Chao, who runs a small storefront shop selling Audi parts in a market in the south of Beijing.
Recently, he said, he sold 100 emblems for the Audi A6 2.0L (the smallest engine for the popular model) to officials from the city of Zhangbei, northwest of Beijing, so they could disguise the fact that their engines were larger than permitted.
“Most people want to buy logos to upgrade so they can save face,” Han said. “Only the government people buy emblems to downgrade the cars.”
The emblems, Han noted, cost 20 yuan each, about $3. But the officials, he said, demanded receipts saying they’d paid 120 yuan.
John Lee and Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.