- - Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army will impose a much tougher regulation May 1 aimed at curbing the explosion of luxury vehicles sporting military license plates that provide drivers with coveted privileges and swagger.

China is on track to become the world’s largest market for luxury cars within four years, and 1.25 million of these expensive “premium” vehicles were sold in the past year in China. They included Rolls Royces, Ferraris, Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Lincolns, Cadillacs, Porsches, Bentleys and AudiQ7s. A large portion of these vehicles appear to belong to the military or are known to bear coveted military license plates.

There has been a spike in the military expenditure for expensive cars for personal use, and there are few controls within the Chinese audit system to check the trend.

In addition, driving a car with a military license plate is a great privilege in China. In a country where the military is a key focus of government development, military license plates allow drivers to be exempt from many responsibilities and obligations on the road that other Chinese citizens must bear, including paying highway tolls, obeying speed limits, and accepting liability for accidents.

The increase in luxury cars carrying military license plates has created several high-profile incidents of abuse that have rocked the nation. Two years ago, a Chinese general’s 15-year-old son, who had no driver’s license, recklessly drove a customized BMW with military tags and engaged in a road rage attack on two other motorists.

The general’s son got away with no meaningful punishment, something that enraged large segments of the nation. That popular anger was partially the reason Li Tianyi, now 17, was arrested in February for his involvement in a gang-rape case.

The high value of military license plates has also created a large black market for fraudulent military plates that are sold at exorbitant prices. Some official military agencies issued the tags for huge profits.

The pending order to re-register all current vehicles with military license plates reflects the resolve new Chinese leader Xi Jinping to clean up the military.

The new regulation specifically states that “a luxury vehicle not equipped with military devices … shall not be allowed to be registered with a military license.”

To prevent fraud, new military license plates are being issued that will embody anti-fraud mechanisms, and all toll booths in China are being ordered to take videos and photographs of cars with military license plates for authentication by a newly created central military vehicle management and monitoring center at the army headquarters in Beijing.

China debates seaweed nets to deter U.S. subs

A fierce debate is underway in China about a peculiar topic: whether nets used in kelp farming can prevent U.S. nuclear submarines from entering the Yellow Sea.

The improbable debate was initiated by China’s pre-eminent military commentator, Rear Adm. Zhang Zhaozhong, who is also a professor at China’s National Defense University, in a detailed commentary on national television that was broadcast on March 24.

The commentary was met with an avalanche of responses on China’s Internet, including widespread ridicule, passionate charges of treason and fierce defense.

“Let’s grow kelp now and forget about spending more money on ASW [anti-submarine warfare]!” an Internet user stated in a tweet.

“Disband our navy and let all the admirals be kelp farmers!” another tweet said.

Realizing his commentary had gone viral beyond his expectation and possibly jeopardized his reputation, Adm. Zhang two days later appeared on China Central TV to offer an explanation.

“Dear listeners, let me now explain to you the relationship between nuclear submarine and kelp,” Adm. Zhang said in his soliloquy March 26.

“American nuclear submarines could go to the Sea of Japan because it is deep there. But the Yellow Sea is shallow, with an average depth of only 44 meters [144 feet]. There are kelp farming nets everywhere in the Yellow Sea.

“If a U.S. nuclear submarine comes here, it will be difficult for it to dive. Even if it did submerge, it may be entangled with kelp nets on its propellers. Once that happens, what awaits the American nuclear sub is only death,” said Adm. Zhang.

Other military figures defended the admiral, who is known for his sometimes unconventional commentaries on military affairs.

But the most important aspect of the national debate was the involvement of the state-run newspaper the Global Times, known for its xenophobic anti-American editorial policy.

On March 25, Global Times published an in-depth profile of Adm. Zhang and his “kelp-nets” theory. The paper spent a large portion of its report detailing many of the admiral’s past embarrassing remarks, calling him China’s “Chief of Strategic Nonsense Bureau.”

Adm. Zhang became nationally famous during the 2003 Iraq War when he was the chief military commentator on Chinese TV broadcasts. The Global Times recounted his erroneous and comical comments cheering for Saddam Hussein and predicting the American military’s demise in Baghdad, or what he called “America’s Stalingrad.”

The Global Times article also made fun of Adm. Zhang’s consistently wrong military assessment of Moammar Gadhafi. He predicted just hours before rebels killed Gadhafi in 2011 that the Libyan dictator could not possibly be found by rebels.

But the Global Times in the end defended Adm. Zhang for one specific reason: his strong anti-American attitude.

“All in the [military] should be hawks!” the paper quoted Adm. Zhang as saying.

• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected] and @yu_miles.

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