By Terril Yue Jones
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's new leadership is seeking to dismantle a system of privilege which has allowed the drivers of military vehicles to do as they please on the roads.
On Sunday the Chinese military began replacing license plates on its cars and trucks to crack down on legions of vehicles, many of them plush luxury brands, which routinely break traffic laws and fill up with free gas.
The People's Liberation Army General Logistics Department began supervising the removal of current military license plates that will expire on Tuesday, the PLA Daily newspaper reported.
Luxury sedans and sport utility vehicles with PLA and People's Armed Police license plates gliding through red lights or flashing lights and sirens to push aside cars in front of them are a common sight in China.
Newly named President Xi Jinping, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission and thus the top military official, has tried to make fighting corruption a cornerstone of his administration, saying he will go after corrupt officials high and low.
Luxury German, American and Japanese cars and SUVs with military plates -- often given to friends and family members as favors -- are one of many manifestations of corruption in China that regularly irk ordinary citizens.
Family members of retired military officers and who have military plates have even claimed free gasoline.
"Xi Jinping has a very strong sense of crisis," said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at Beijing Institute of Technology and an anti-corruption researcher.
"He has the lofty intention to use the iron fist of the state to fight corruption," Hu said in a telephone interview.
"Of course the fight against corruption is like a violent storm, and the more you persist in going after something by putting your career on the line, the more you encounter resistance," Hu said. "As for results, we will wait and see."
A number of high-end auto brands will be banned from receiving the new military license plates, including sedans from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Jaguar, Porsche, Ford's Lincoln, General Motors' Cadillac, Volkswagen-owned Bentley and the Volkswagen Phaeton, Xinhua said.
Absent from Xinhua's published list were Audi sedans, the clear preference among Chinese officials with access to government cars.
Audi A7 SUVs however were listed as off-limits, along with Porsche Cayennes and other unspecified SUVs. Range Rover and Lexus SUVs with such plates are also common in Beijing.
Private and local government vehicles will also be ineligible for the plates, as well as any car costing more than 450,000 yuan (about $73,000), Xinhua said.
The policy will further decrease sales of foreign brands into Chinese government fleets. Beijing has moved to bar certain government agencies from buying foreign cars at all, potentially excluding global auto brands from a market of between 70 billion and 80 billion yuan ($11.1 billion to $12.7 billion).
The new licensing system is also meant to weed out fake military plates by using embedded electronic technology, the state-run news agency Xinhua said.
"The move is meant to crack down on the creation, sale and use of counterfeit military vehicle plates and root out loopholes in military vehicle management, so as to maintain social harmony, stability and the reputation of the military," Xinhua quoted the PLA General Logistics Department as saying in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Stephen Powell)