Drivers with a license to kill in China
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - The history of China is one in which one dynasty is overthrown by force and replaced by another. Hence one of Mao Zedong's best know quotations: "Power comes from the barrel of a gun." So historically, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to rule the country could be justified by the fact that it seized power by force.

Mao's Red Army, or the People's Liberation Army (PLA) as it was later renamed, was the key to the CCP's success in seizing "all under the Heaven" by fighting wars "on horseback". And after the founding of the People's Republic, the CCP continues to rely on the PLA to safeguard and consolidate its rule. Given their special status, the Chinese armed forces, now the PLA and the People's Armed Police (PAP) that was split from the PLA, enjoy certain privileges in society.

One such privilege is that military vehicles enjoy special treatment on highways across the country. License plates of all PLA and PAP motor vehicles are white (plates of civilian cars are blue and trucks yellow, while those of vehicles driven by foreigners or overseas investors are black).

White-plate vehicles are not under the jurisdiction of traffic police. They can run a red light without being stopped. They do not need to pay toll fees on express highways or bridges or tunnels. All toll collection points must open a toll-free pass for military vehicles. They can park in any public parking place without paying fees.

It is understood that such special arrangements are granted to facilitate military mobilization. However, it seems to have become an abuse as all military vehicles enjoy the privilege, whether they are on duty or not.

To make it worse, in the 1980s and 1990s, when the PLA and PAP were allowed to conduct commercial businesses, they issued white plates to their business partners. It was said that some troops even sell white plates to make some extra bucks. As nearly everything in China can be counterfeited, some savvy people also produce fake white plates for profit.

Hence, the number of white-plate vehicles on roads has grown. Since these vehicles usually do not follow traffic rules, experienced civilian drivers generally give them a wide berth.

When fake military license plates became quite rampant, the PLA and PAP had to reiterate that drivers of white-plate vehicles had to carry their military identity cards. Military police have been sporadically mobilized to check on military vehicles. However, the effectiveness of such campaigns remains doubtful.

It is against such background that news reports about police in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong province in southern China, shooting a medical school professor to death who was suspected of driving a car with a fake military plate have drawn wide public attention.

At 4.55am on November 13, Guangzhou policemen on patrol saw a car near Zhujiang Hospital, its plates were wrapped by newspapers. They approached the car to check, but reportedly met resistance. A policeman showed his identification, which was seized by the driver who then tried to drive away. In the commotion, the car hit a policeman. Police opened fire and shot the driver, said a statement of the Guangzhou police after the incident was reported by the media. The driver, identified by police only as a "senior doctor surnamed Yin", was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The Guangzhou-based mass-circulation Southern Metropolis News reported the driver was Yin Fangming, an associate professor in neurosurgery with Zhujiang Hospital. Police said Yin's car was not legally registered, and carried invalid military plates. There were two civilian plates in the trunk. Guangzhou has set up a task force to investigate the incident.

The incident sparked public controversy, with many questioning whether the police had used excessive force by opening fire. They demanded that the higher authorities launch a through investigation into whether it was necessary to open fire and whether the shooting was legal. The latest development is that the Ministry of Public Security may send a team to oversee the investigation.

Yes, police opening fire to kill a civilian is a serious issue which demands a thorough investigation. But apart from this, another controversial issue is whether the police are empowered to check vehicles carrying military plates.

"The police suspected Yin's car was illegal or carrying fake military plates so they wanted to check. However, only military police are entitled to check on vehicles carrying military plates, be they fake or not. Civilian police have no power to do so," wrote a netizen who called himself Sheng Dalin on

But others insist that the police have the power to check and crack down on fake military license plates. For instance, Mao Lixin wrote in The Beijing News, "There are legal grounds for police to check on military vehicles."

Sheng and Mao represent extreme opinions. In reality, civilian police are not authorized to check on genuine military vehicles. At best, they can only report a violation of law by a military vehicle to military authorities. However, from a legal point of view, the police are entitled to check on fake military plates, since counterfeiting is a civilian crime. But it is often difficult to tell with the naked eye whether a military license is fake or not, so to avoid embarrassment police normally avoid checking vehicles carrying white plates, unless they are sure the plates are fake.

This leaves room for criminals to maneuver. There have been reports of criminals disguised as soldiers using fake military vehicles for smuggling or drug trafficking. With fake white plates proliferating, traffic privileges granted to military vehicles have become a challenge to the enforcement of traffic laws.

"Seeing white-plate vehicles - who knows if they are genuine or fake - barging about on the road ignoring any regulations, I would give my wholehearted support if the government did something about it," a Guangzhou taxi driver said.

Therefore, the CCP, which really commands the PLA and the PAP, may need to consider setting restrictions on the privileges of military vehicles. For instance, military vehicles should be ordered to obey civilian traffic rules if they are not part of a military mobilization. Or civilian police should be empowered to check military vehicles not carrying out military missions.

If the CCP still wants to preserve privileges for the military, it should order the PLA and the PAP to regularly send out military police to patrol the roads to ensure that military vehicles behave themselves, and to help civilian police check and crack down on fake white plates.

It's too late for Yin but there's still time for the CCP to address the problem.

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