Is your luxury car missing? You might look for it in China

November 07, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

JIUJIANG, China -- The last time Scott Shulman saw his 1988 Jaguar was Feb. 24, when he left the car running while he ducked inside a northeast Philadelphia convenience store for a few minutes. When he returned, it was gone.

And now it's in China.

The elegant black sedan -- its front doors still bearing the initials ofMr. Shulman's mother in small gold script -- sits under a heavy coat of grime among hundreds of upscale foreign cars in a string of wide-open sales lots here.

"Are you serious?" exclaimed Mr. Shulman when told by phone that a reporter had found his car in China. "That's pretty weird."

How the suburban Philadelphia salesman's car, which the FBI lists as stolen, made it from Philadelphia to this rural township in southernChina's Guangdong province is not precisely known.

But its illegal journey across the globe sheds light on the rapidly growing problem of stolen cars in the United States being exported for sale in other nations.

There's no question the car here is Mr. Shulman's. The vehicle identification number, clearly visible through the windshield, is the same.

U.S. officials believe that about 200,000 stolen cars a year are sentfrom the United States to many foreign countries. Central American nations are among the top recipients; China recently emerged as a hot spot, but the scale of Chinese involvement remains largely undetermined.

The Jiujiang sales lot with Mr. Shulman's Jaguar and dozens of similar operations lining an almost mile-long strip of highway here specialize in high-end Japanese, German and American makes of cars,virtually all late models or new.

Brazenly operating for more than a year, this huge, privately run market has become well known in booming Guangdong province and other parts of China as the place to go for foreign luxury vehicles.

"It's run by the rich bosses for the rich bosses," explains a taxi driver who frequently brings buyers there from Canton.

While prices here are high by U.S. standards, they are cheap for China, where import tariffs and other fees raise the total cost of legally imported cars to as much as five times their U.S. price tag.

Jiujiang dealers are able to offer relatively good prices because many -- if not virtually all -- of their cars have been imported illegally. Dealers invariably tell buyers they must obtain various required licenses and certificates on China's black market.

Wheels and engines have been removed from some of the cars for sale here, apparently so that they could be imported falsely under lower tariffs as auto parts. Dealers reassemble the cars for buyers.

Documents attached

Other cars here were bound at one time for the Middle East from Japan, according to documents still attached to them.

Many of the vehicles are believed to have been stolen abroad, including but not solely in the United States, say U.S. law enforcement sources who recently became aware of the Jiujiang market.

Yet Jiujiang dealers operate openly and confidently, even though the local public security office is nearby. One day last month, a police van was being repaired at one of the car lots.

In China, this sort of illegal activity typically does not take place so openly without police involvement. Chinese customs officers were likely bribed to allow at least some of the cars into China, U.S. law enforcement sources say.

Good connections

Tan Jian Kang, the 25-year-old manager of the lot where Mr. Shulman's Jaguar is for sale, alluded directly to official protection when he bragged to a potential buyer: "Our connections with the you know who' are really good, so there won't be any problems when you buy a car here."

The Jiujiang car market thus also reveals the ineffectiveness of China's fervid national anti-corruption campaign.

In launching this campaign recently, the Chinese Communist Party even went so far as to admit that smuggling, graft, embezzlement and misuse of power by officials have reached such unprecedented proportions these days that fighting corruption is a "life and death" matter directly bearing on the party's fate as China's ruler.

To that end, Chinese media widely publicized the execution Oct. 30 of the police chief of another Guangdong province town for having taken about $200,000 in bribes to allow the illegal importation of 75 cars. This was touted as Communist China's largest smuggling case ever.

The car salesman here, Mr. Tan, identified by his name card as a manager with the Chen Yong Shen Xing Auto Parts company in the nearby city of Shunde, seems only slightly daunted by the anti-corruption campaign.

He advises buyers to use their "local connections" for needed licenses because "the situation is a little tense right now."

'Imported,' not stolen

He also claims that his cars have been "imported" from the United States and the Middle East and purchased by his company in Hong Kong, not stolen.

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