In most places, the name "BMW" implies luxury and exclusivity. But in China, the brand has unwittingly found itself enmeshed in tales that illustrate the powerlessness of ordinary Chinese against the powerful and corrupt.
The first scandal occurred last year, after a tractor filled with green onions scraped the side of a BMW in Harbin. The drivers of both the tractor and the metallic-silver luxury car were 45-year-old women, but any similarity between them ended there: the former was a peasant, the latter the wife of a wealthy businessman. After a confrontation between the two, the wealthy wife drove her BMW into the growing crowd of spectators on the roadside, killing the peasant woman and injuring 12 others.
The case went to the local court, where the judge ruled it an "accidental traffic disturbance" and gave the driver a two-year suspended sentence. The judge's ruling spurred rumors that he went easy on her because her husband was related to senior provincial officials. It quickly became a story of "rich versus poor," widely cited as an example of high-level corruption.
Over the next few months, newspapers and television stations ran with the story as it snowballed into a national obsession. Alarmed by the public reaction, the Harbin magistrate ordered the case reopened, only to have the suspended sentence confirmed when the case was closed this March. The big BMW story of late 2003 resurfaced quietly, before being buried again forever.