Are Car Registration Data a State Secret in China?

The Chinese government restricts the public’s access to information on a wide range of subjects that are considered non-sensitive in most other countries. There are no publicized official figures on, for instance, how big the country’s land mass is, how many are executed by law each year, how widespread or serious soil pollution is, and how many apartments government officials have. Given the deep sense of insecurity the government has due to lack of legitimacy, most of these restrictions are not hard to explain. However, there are some that defy common sense, such as the stubborn refusal to disclose exactly how many new cars consumers buy each year in the world’s largest auto market.

In other parts of the world, auto sales usually refer directly to new car registrations or retail numbers, but here they are deliveries from automakers to dealerships. Currently, two government-backed agencies release monthly reports on new vehicle sales, CAAM (China Association of Automobile Manufacturers) and CPCA (China Passenger Car Association), both counting only wholesales. Their data came from automakers that record and report how many units and which models have been shipped to dealerships. The counts are inaccurate for measuring domestic demands on several accounts. For one thing, they cover vehicles sold to overseas markets while omitting imports. Also, automakers have been exposed tweaking or even falsifying the numbers sent to CAAM or CPCA, inflating or hiding deliveries to make reports look good (Hawtai and Beijing-Hyundai are just two examples). Even after the subtraction of exports and addition of imports, the wholesale numbers were still only an approximation of what Chinese actually bought. In measuring the national market as a whole on a yearly basis, the discrepancy between wholesale and retail numbers can reach hundreds of thousands. What’s more, even if one can get a good total number, there is no easy or legitimate way to know sales of a particular brand or model in a certain region, to the frustration many auto analysts.

Is this because the government does not keep new vehicle registration data? Not at all. Just as in normal countries, there is a department of motor vehicles in each Chinese city which issues new car plates. And the registration system has been digitized across the country a few years ago. So the data are there, ready to be shared, but have been purposely kept secret.

In 2008, Tang Yuxiang, then president of Yutong Bus and a member of the Chinese congress, petitioned for the disclosure of vehicle registration data. The Ministry of Public Security, which kept the data, denied the request citing technical difficulties and the risk of leaking drivers’ personal information. The official response is widely regarded as a merely perfunctory excuse. Since then the government has ignored several similar calls.

For whatever reasons they are classified, the registration data, however, were apparently not treated as a state secret: they were traded by none other than the Ministry of Public Security–through middlemen. Until late 2011 a company called Wuxi Huatong Intelligent Transportation Technology had sold the data for large sums of money. Wuxi Huatong was registered by the Traffic Management Research Institute of the Ministry of Public Security. Data buyers included virtually all major carmakers and auto PR and consulting firms. They are said to have paid about 400,000 Yuan for the registration information of just one model. To prevent the buyers from publicizing the data, each report sold was reportedly customized to include a special, traceable mark; Wuxi Huatong threatened to punish any client that dared to transfer or release the report. The operation was stopped in late 2011 after being exposed by the media. But to this day those willing pay the high prices can still get the data on the grey market.

Besides people in the Ministry of Public Security, main beneficiaries of this blatant violation of public interests are the two powerful agencies: CAAM and CPCA, which have enjoyed a monopoly over the publication of auto sales figures. They would lose not only their influence but a major source of income if the secretive practice were abolished. And automakers too want to maintain the status quo, which leaves room for data manipulation.