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Beaten Black or Blue


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A new game to play in Beijing's traffic jams

EFFORTS to restrict the movement of foreigners within China's borders have been all but abandoned in recent years. But one vestige of this policy has doggedly persisted: special licence-plates identifying foreigners' cars. From November 1st these have at last been scrapped. But China's traffic bureaucrats are finding it hard to let go.

For decades cars owned by foreign companies or individuals have had to use black licence-plates. These stand out from the blue plates now used by most civilian vehicles (there are other colours, too: eg, white for the police and army, and yellow for big lorries).

The black plates were originally intended to make it easier for the police to identify foreign-owned vehicles and stop them from entering restricted areas. In the 1980s large swathes of China were off-limits to foreigners. These were often areas used by the army or considered too embarrassingly backward for foreigners to see. Roads in the countryside around Beijing were dotted with signs telling foreigners to proceed no further. By 2005, however, official press reports said only 8% of the country was still off-limits to foreigners.

The status of the black licence-plates has changed too. When they were introduced almost all other passenger cars were for official use. But in the past few years private-car ownership has grown rapidly. Members of China's burgeoning middle-class have come to covet black plates. They suggest status and overseas connections. Traffic police sometimes turn a blind eye to transgressions by black-plated cars (perhaps to avoid the embarrassment of conversing in a foreign tongue). Other drivers are often treated by the police with disdain.

This fuelled a black-plate black market. Many try to register their vehicles as foreign-owned, and many black-plated cars now have at best tenuous foreign connections. From this month, however, foreigners all get blue plates too. Only diplomats still get special ones, marked by a character meaning “envoy”.

But vehicular discrimination survives. Cars with black plates can keep them. And the discerning motorist (and policeman) will still spot a foreigner's blue plate. In Beijing they all bear the letters LB. This will make foreigners' cars easier to manage, the police are quoted as saying. Black marketeers can rest easy.

[Source: The Economist print edition]

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