Beginning in 1992, the Chinese government devised a simple system for issuing license plates to the small but growing ranks of private car owners. The plates contained five numerals—generated randomly—and a Chinese character that identified the local government issuing the plate. But as private ownership proliferated, the small number of available plates dried up. As a result, some local governments initiated monthly auctions; in some major cities, winning bids have ranged as high as $4,000 per plate. Not surprisingly, the dearth of plates was a drag on China’s developing automobile industry. In response, Beijing actively sought a system to expand the number of plates available to China’s drivers.
The Maplewood-based multinational corporation, famous for its Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes, has a talent for converting obscure, seemingly worthless inventions into innovative and highly profitable products. The 3M digital license plate system is a classic example: It combines unrelated technologies in print heads, laminates, reflective sheeting, thermal transfer ribbons, and software to create a high-tech all-purpose license plate for motor vehicle agencies. According to a 3M brochure, “It seamlessly integrates your vehicle registration data with plate production to quickly and accurately produce high-quality plates.” Apparently, the pitch is a powerful one: Motor vehicle officials throughout the United States and Europe have begun adopting the system. In Minnesota, 3M is providing its system “essentially free” to Minnesota’s Critical Habitat plates program, hoping that the cash-strapped Minnesota DMV will be so taken with the system that it will upgrade all of its license plates. If other governments are any guide, it will.
On the occasion of the Ventura trade mission, the Chinese Ministry of Public Safety announced that it was choosing 3M for a license plate trial to begin in August 2002. The system would expand Chinese license plates to six characters—three numbers and three letters, or six numbers consecutive—thus making available 36 million plate varieties and presumably eliminating the need for further expensive auctions. Kenneth Yu bragged that the system would allow new plates to be processed in seconds. Of critical importance to Beijing was the fact that the system would centralize the process of issuing license plates, thereby expanding the government’s ability to track registrations while ending the practice of local governments issuing identical plates. The trial was scheduled to last four months, in four cities, including Beijing. If it was successful, it would be expanded nationwide.
In advance of the trial’s August 12, 2002, launch, a Ministry of Public Safety minor official held a press conference to explain the advantages of the new system. High-tech materials would be used to manufacture the plates; the plates would be secured with anti-counterfeiting measures; and they could be issued very quickly. But the Chinese media fastened onto a different feature: the possibility of vanity plates. “License Plate Numbers Up for Grabs” was the headline in China Daily on August 6, 2002. Though only a small portion of the official press conference had related to personalized plates, the Daily’s story excitedly announced, “A pilot project to allow automobile owners to decide their own license plate numbers will be launched in Beijing, Tianjin, Hangzhou, and Shenzhen.” Similar coverage was repeated throughout the Chinese media. In spite of the Ministry’s best efforts to excite the public about anti-counterfeiting measures, it had clearly lost control of the story and the program.
In China, lucky numbers are a cultural obsession with very practical consequences. For example, the Mandarin and Cantonese word for “eight” is
quite similar to a word that means “getting rich”; the number is highly prized for everything from addresses to phone numbers. In Shanghai, cell phone numbers containing a series of 8s are worth hundreds of dollars (I have been offered the equivalent of $400 for my Chinese cell phone number). In Sichuan Province, the government recently auctioned the land-line number 8888-8888 for the equivalent of $290,000. And in Hong Kong, license plates containing 8s can be worth millions.
Prior to 3M’s system, mainland Chinese license plates incorporating the number were usually obtained only by the well-connected and those willing to engage in what the state-controlled press euphemistically calls “corruption.” Thus, when the government announced that it was enabling car owners to choose their own plate combinations for a uniform fee, it was a signal consumer event. China Daily went so far as to post an Internet survey in which “55 percent welcomed the license-plate reform, regarding it an exciting way for vehicle owners to show their personalities.” The assumption was that the 8s would be exhausted quickly.
In Beijing, car owners began lining up at the traffic bureau two days before the program commenced. By 8 a.m. on August 12, there were three hundred people waiting for a chance to show their personalities. By noon, 1,165 plates had been issued (a number that astounded officials at Minnesota’s DMV). As expected, demand was high for plates with 8s, as well as lucky 6s and 9s. Particular demand was shown for any plate with the combination 168 (the numbers, when spoken, sound very similar to “smooth path to riches” in Mandarin). Birthdays and names were also popular.