For reasons that are not entirely clear, the new system contained only one restriction on three-letter combinations: CHN. This common abbreviation for “China” is often used in an official capacity, and so the government naturally did not want the masses displaying it on their newly acquired Volkswagen Santanas. Beyond that, Chinese car owners were allowed to select any combination that suited them. And that’s exactly what they did. By the end of the first day puckish car owners were sporting plates with personalizations that included FBI 007, CNN 001, GOD 001, and USA 911. These combinations were bound to draw attention, and so they did. But it was another combination that doomed the new arrangement. “The last straw was SEX 001,” explained 3M’s Kenneth Yu. “Someone picked up a phone at the ministry and asked, ‘Is this appropriate?’” While the appropriateness was being discussed, the SEX series underwent a rapid run-up: SEX 069 was also issued on the first day. Quite likely, Minnesota’s DMV would’ve taken offense at the “SEX” series; in modest Beijing, it was a major affront. Likewise, the use of brand names was bound to anger a central government increasingly concerned (publicly, at least) with intellectual property rights. “GOD” is, needless to say, strictly off-limits. And even hinting at allegiance to a foreign government or organization is grounds for an official investigation. It was a rough first day.
Ironically, 3M, which laudably applies Minnesota labor and environmental standards to its operations worldwide, did not bother to apply Minnesota common sense to the system it provided to the Chinese Ministry of Public Safety. According to an individual associated with the personalized program at the Minnesota DMV, Minnesota’s personalized license plates are vetted by a committee that includes law enforcement. But because one of the new system’s assets is the speed at which new plates could be issued, a censoring committee was not built into the process.
China’s Ministry of Public Safety is unwilling to discuss 3M and its licensing system, and inquiries into whether it had or would form an “appropriateness committee” were left unanswered. But even without Ministry comment, it is worth noting that Kenneth Yu himself highlighted the rapid processing of plates during the Ventura trade mission. So: Should 3M have asked its software engineers to insert code prohibiting the issuance of plates which were likely to offend Chinese government sensibilities? “It’s pretty amazing that 3M wouldn’t have thought of that ahead of time,” commented the Minnesota DMV employee involved with the state’s personalized plate program.
As the world learned during the SARS outbreaks, the Chinese government doesn’t explain itself when it’s been embarrassed. Though 3M may quibble with who should have been responsible for vetting offensive plates, it was not lost on the Ministry that the old system managed to offend nobody. On August 22, 2002, just ten days after the 3M system had debuted with much fanfare, Chinese newspapers announced the program’s suspension. “The Beijing Traffic Administration issued a notice saying that registration of the new license numbers was suspended due to technical problems, but did not give a set date for its resumption,” explained People’s Daily. “Although the administration did not give any clear explanation why the registration came to a sudden halt, some suspect that a creative naming of license numbers might be part of the reason.”
When I asked whether or when the suspension would be lifted, Kenneth Yu sighed, “It was put on hold pending a system to screen.” 3M’s software engineers have had over a year to devise a system to prevent Chinese car owners from touting their devotion to GOD, SEX, and the WTO. But as of yet, there is no indication that the hold will be lifted. So either the engineers haven’t been successful or, more believably, the Ministry of Public Safety would prefer to forget 3M and its high-tech license plates. In early August 2003, one year after the program’s commencement and suspension, The Rake asked 3M China spokesman Kelvin Li if the Ministry had given any indications as to when the program would be restarted. “No,” he answered. “But it’s very difficult to say with a matter like this.”
3M’s blocky logo is a common sight in Shanghai. It hangs over shops and supply stores throughout the city’s sprawling industrial sectors. Foreign brand saturation is a rare accomplishment in free-market China, hard won, and greatly envied, but success breeds curiosity about failures, and so 3M’s license plate debacle has been thoroughly debated, analyzed, and toasted in the expensive bars where Shanghai’s foreign-invested business community congregates. The verdict is simple. “Why would anyone suppose that mainland Chinese, if unchecked and left to their own devices, would be any less ‘creative’ and shameless in personalized license plates than Americans?” asks an American businessman with several years’ experience in China, as he relaxes in the elegant bamboo-lined garden at Cotton’s Bar. “We’ve seen example after example of businesspeople disregarding their own common sense and experience in looking at China,” he sighs over his red wine. Experience only gets a company so far, it seems—even when that company is 3M.