As published in FOCUS Magazine in the September 2013 issue.

The Chinese gathered in the art deco auction house near Shanghai’s iconic bund are not seeking priceless antiques or cherished celebrity memorabilia. Instead, hopefuls are here for a more practical reason – to buy a license plate. To curb traffic congestion and air pollution, the Chinese government has rationed license plate distribution in its largest cities such as beijing, shanghai, guangzhou, and guiyang, causing prices to skyrocket.

Established first in Shanghai nearly 20 years ago, the programme sees today’s Shanghainese buying license plates that cost rmb 90,000, three times as much as a cheap car – for example, a Zotye Z100 comes in at rmb 24,000. Hopefuls hire middlemen, who double as scalpers, believing their expertise will give buyers an edge in the online and in-person auctions. As a country with 220,000 driving fatalities a year, locals pay high premiums for plates with lucky eights representing prosperity and avoid those featuring unlucky fours symbolising death. To crack down on scalping, the shanghai municipal government requires winning bidders to keep their license plate for at least three years.

Beijing’s system is more egalitarian but less economically efficient. The city presents 20,000 new plates a month; drivers can either win one through a lottery or pay a rmb 100,000 flat rate. Meanwhile, guangzhou took a goldilocks approach, offering 50 per cent by lottery, 40 per cent by auction and 10 per cent to cars certified as environmentally friendly and energy efficient.

Note: this is a preview of the full article