By Lily Kuo and Gang Yang, December 4, 2013
It just got even harder for car owners in Beijing to get a coveted license plate, a necessary commodity for the city of 13 million's 7.5 million drivers.
Since 2011, the plates have been awarded in a lottery system that people joke is more difficult to win than the country's actual lottery. It was put in place as cars poured on to Beijing's roads, causing traffic jams and choking fumes—they more than doubled (link in Chinese) in 10 years, to 5.2 million in 2012. Last month, Beijing announced it would make things even tougher, by cutting the number of new license plates it issues to drivers by over a third to further battle congestion and pollution.
Starting next year officials will make things tougher still, by holding the lottery drawing every other month instead of every month, the city's transportation bureau said on Nov. 28 (link in Chinese).
That may explain why a post from a city resident was so widely-shared in the Chinese social media sphere this week that it was reported on by national media. The blogger wrote:
I met this 'taxi driver' this morning. He's a Beijing native and a white-collar worker. He plans to buy a car, but has never won the goddamn license plate lottery. So he came up with this genius strategy: pay a taxicab company a monthly deposit of 4700 yuan [$800] so that he gets a cab to drive. Besides, he picks up a couple of patrons on his way to office, which earns him an extra 120 yuan per day. Isn't that awesome?
Officials say the story is fake and that getting permission to drive a cab in Beijing is even more difficult than winning the license plate lottery. But the idea behind the post, as well as its popularity, demonstrates the frustration that many Beijing residents have towards the driving restrictions and the creative ways they use to get around them. Moonlighting as a cab driver might be an unrealistic strategy, but Beijingers have resorted to various smart, yet somewhat shady schemes to game the lottery system. Here are a few:
Drivers in Beijing who spend an extra 1,500 yuan ($250) can obtain a license plate from the city of Zhuozhou (link in Chinese) in Hebei province, about an hour’s drive from Beijing. The downside of this is that those with Hebei plates have to stay off central Beijing roads during peak hours of the day, when they are reserved for only cars registered in Beijing.
Some car owners in Beijing choose to rent license plates from car dealerships and residents who managed to collect extra plates before the city began the lottery system in 2011. Drivers pay a monthly price of about 1,500 yuan. In August, a woman from Tianjin was found to be renting more than a thousand plates to city residents. Beijing police have since confiscated all of them.
Several Beijing car dealers sell not only used cars but, for a 30 percent markup on the price of the car, the right to use the former car owner’s license plate. This is called finding a beiche, literally a "car carrier." The danger with this scheme is that car plates are not legally transferable, so the car remains registered under the name of the former owner. Therefore, the chances of getting caught in the event of a car accident or traffic violation are pretty high.