Drivers in Beijing get fake married for a licence plate (really) to beat wait of up to nine years caused by rationing

Mandy Zuo
·3-min read

How far would you go to obtain a licence plate for a car?

In Chinese cities, the rationing of plates to limit car use – as a way to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion – has spawned a cottage industry of entrepreneurs who offer ways of jumping the queue.

The capital, Beijing, with its notorious smog and jammed streets, has strict limits on the number of licence plates it issues – meaning there are over 3,000 applicants for every plate for a petrol vehicle.

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Those seeking a licence plate for an electric car through the official channels can be kept waiting for up to nine years, the local traffic authority says.

Beijing has placed strict limits on the number of licence plates it issues as a way to curb air pollution and clear the skies. Photo: Getty Images
Beijing has placed strict limits on the number of licence plates it issues as a way to curb air pollution and clear the skies. Photo: Getty Images

The city introduced a lottery in 2011 to allocate the plates, but demand has fuelled a thriving black market and scams in which specialist agents play matchmaker: a driver who needs a plate marries someone who owns one, has it transferred into their name and the two then divorce.

Marriage agencies have been charging up to 160,000 yuan (US$24,000) to help people obtain a plate for a petrol-powered car, or 110,000 yuan for an electric-powered one, state media reported last year. The money is split between the agent and the seller.

The city introduced a lottery in 2011 to allocate the plates. Photo: Getty Images
The city introduced a lottery in 2011 to allocate the plates. Photo: Getty Images

An explosion in such cases this year was behind a recent week-long crackdown on the holding of sham marriages to trade vehicle licence plates, in which officers detained 166 people on suspicion of being involved in illegal licence plate trading.

The suspects include one woman who had allegedly married and divorced 28 times since 2018. She is one of 124 of those detained who face charges relating to sham marriages, the municipal police bureau said.

The 26-year-old woman accused of marrying and divorcing 28 times is said to have successfully transferred 23 licence numbers in the past two years, according to the police. Another woman, aged 37, was accused of marrying 17 times and transferring 15 plates.

Marriage agencies have been charging up to US$24,000 to help people obtain a plate for a petrol-powered car. Photo: AFP
Marriage agencies have been charging up to US$24,000 to help people obtain a plate for a petrol-powered car. Photo: AFP

In Shanghai, an auction scheme to allocate licence plates has been in place since the 1990s. The average bid has hovered around 90,000 yuan in recent years, and is set to rise after the city recently announced it is to further limit the area and length of time for which plates from outside the city are valid.

Phoney marriages are also used widely in China by people claiming compensation when residential buildings are demolished, as the country undergoes rapid urbanisation.

Many single people get hitched in a hurry after being notified their homes are to be torn down, because an extra inhabitant earns the household more compensation from the developer or the government. These couples typically split the money, then split up.

Last year, 11 members of an extended family in eastern China reportedly married and divorced each other 23 times in a fortnight to cash in on an urban renewal project when their village was earmarked for demolition. This entitled 13 more of them to claim a government payout.

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