In 1994, China's Communist rulers decided that the gluttony of party officials with unfettered access to money and privilege was soiling their brand. Indeed, the rulers' own penchant for black Mercedes stretch limousines sparked no small amount of comment in what was then mostly a nation of bicyclists.
So to set an example, they gave them up. And switched to being chauffeured about town in black Audis, the windows tinted a dusty gray.
This lesson in asceticism, Chinese style, resonates even today, as the party elite met at Beijing's Great Hall of the People this week to lay hands on China's next generation of leaders.
As the Chinese have abandoned their bicycles, the black A6 has become the automobile of choice for practically any party official or military officer with enough clout to secure one.
At the least, that is a cast of thousands: Audi sold 313,000 cars in China in 2011, and the research firm LMC Automotive estimated this year that a fifth of sales go to governments, state institutions and state-owned companies. About half of all A6s sold worldwide (229,200 in 2011) are bought in China and Hong Kong, the research firm Dunne & Company reported last year.
More than a perk, the black Audi is a rolling advertisement for its occupant's importance and impunity in a nation obsessed with status. Black A6s slice through traffic queues and scream down the emergency lanes of Beijing's traffic-clogged freeways, sometimes with a flashing red light stuck on the roof or implanted in the grille. Ordinary drivers know better than to cut them off or complain, at least publicly.
To many, it is also a symbol of rot within the vast party bureaucracy and of a widening gap between the privileged and the common man. Public crusades against corruption and extravagance have been a staple of Communist rhetoric for decades, but to little avail; even Beijing's fleet of police cruisers includes BMWs.
"There is no longer a need to appear humble," Martin K. Whyte, a scholar of Chinese society at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, said in a telephone interview. "If you look at the leadership of Mao's era, at the way they dressed, it was certainly in part designed not to awe the population, to try to prevent appearing overly grand. That's no longer in the cards."
Perhaps so, but the A6 now easily surpasses the old stretch Mercedes as an object of popular resentment.
The masses' contempt has only grown since then, fed by a steady diet of corruption scandals involving highhanded party officials. In response, the government proposed rules earlier this year that limited the price and engine size of newly purchased cars, and required sellers to spend at least 3 percent of their revenues on research and development.
Almost all of the 412 autos that qualified were Chinese brands; the 383,000 renminbi ($61,500) A6 was nowhere to be seen.
At the same time, officials announced that a new model of the Hongqi, or Red Flag, the hulking, gasoline-guzzling dowager in which Richard Nixon rode to his meeting with Mao Zedong, would appear in 2013. Henceforth, they said, the Hongqi would be the official automobile of government ministers.
Will that break up the moth-to-flame romance of luxury-loving bureaucrats and German engineering?
Maybe, but diktats from Beijing have a long and storied history of being issued with great solemnity, and then being subverted. And Audi has announced that is working on a slightly stretched version of the A6. The powerful passengers who sit in the rear seat could use a bit more legroom.