Big in China: License-Plate Marriages

What it takes for Chinese drivers to get on the road

Rami Niemi

You can marry for love, you can marry for money, or, in Beijing, you can marry for a license plate.

As authorities try to cap the number of vehicles in China’s car-choked capital, they’ve taken to doling out new license plates via a six-time-a-year lottery. The odds are daunting. This June alone, more than 2.8 million people entered the drawing, and officials handed plates out at the lowest rate ever: one per 843 entries.

Since any driver who has resided in Beijing for more than a year can register, the drawing is fair in principle. But the license-plate system has a big loophole. While private sales of license plates are banned, the rules allow transfers between spouses.

Thus one solution: sham marriages. In crowded forums and chat rooms, plate owners offer to tie the knot—for the right price.

“All we need is a marriage registration, and we can get you a license plate,” one middleman boasts in an online ad. “No need for the lottery—pay once and get the benefit for life!”

But that benefit doesn’t come cheap. At current rates, a fake-marriage license plate costs some 90,000 yuan, or about $13,350—more than many Chinese-made cars. So-called leopard numbers, which include the same digit at least three times, are most desirable, and licenses with 888 can run as high as 150,000 yuan. (The word for “eight” is considered lucky because it sounds like the word for “fortune.”)

It’s a steep price to pay for the dubious privilege of driving in Beijing, with its clogged roads, angry drivers, and paucity of parking. But the booming middle class sees a car as a necessity, so demand is intense.

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One young man tried the lottery for three years before taking the fake-matrimony route. The woman he chose had posted an ad saying: “Men who are interested [in fake marriage] to transfer the license, contact me. Middlemen don’t bother.”

A resident of Hebei was among the fortunate ones. He had two plates, so he posted one online, and a woman offered 80,000 yuan for it. He accepted. They divorced their respective spouses, married each other, and arranged the transfer. Once the paperwork was approved, they divorced a second time, and remarried their original spouses.

Enticements for matrimonial mischief extend beyond license plates. In Shanghai, people get sham divorces to take advantage of lower real-estate down-payment requirements for first-time buyers. One broker in the city married four different customers to help them satisfy regulations restricting housing purchases to locals.

Of course, some of this can be chalked up to the never-ending struggle between the bureaucrats who draw up rules and the citizens who do their utmost to skirt them. But the recent nuptial shenanigans also appear to reflect a changing, and highly pragmatic, attitude toward marriage.

Decades of the one-child policy and parents’ preference for males has led to a glut of men and a dearth of women. Among middle-class Chinese, owning a house is seen as an “entry ticket” for male suitors to be considered eligible mates. Which raises an odd dilemma: To get a real wife, you need a house. But to get that house, you may first need a fake wife.