Yesterday, on the forecourt of the National Library, these and other vehicles were on display for public inspection. Tomorrow they will be auctioned, the first such sale in Peking of fancy saloon cars which government departments have been forced to dispose of under an anti-corruption crackdown. The Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection has ordered officials to trade in their expensive, imported models for locally- made vehicles.
It is estimated that there are 40,000 Mercedes in China, most of which probably were purchased with public money by government work units and cadres; three of the five cars for auction tomorrow will be Mercedes. All the cars on offer are fitted with darkened windows to guarantee privacy for anyone who can afford pounds 15,000 to pounds 26,000.
The crackdown on expensive cars is part of a wider assault on the abuse of power by Chinese officials, ranging from mobile phones and illicit banquets to massive bribery and corruption. The campaign has intensified since the suicide of a Peking vice-mayor, Wang Baosen, and the dismissal of the city's party chief, Chen Xitong, earlier this year. Mr Wang's economic crimes allegedly netted at least pounds 24m of public funds.
Over the past week, details of several cases have emerged which give some idea of how deeply-rooted corruption has become in China:
nChen Suiwen, the deputy governor of Hubei province, became the highest- ranking culprit to be toppled in a stock-market scandal. He was sacked for bribery and speculative share trading - literally "stir-frying" stocks.
n At the Ministry of Internal Trade, 54 people were arrested on corruption charges, including 10 who allegedly took bribes or embezzled more than one million yuan (pounds 80,000).
n Six people in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, have been charged in the biggest corruption scandal since the Communists took power in 1949. Deng Bin, 57, headed a pyramid fund-raising scheme which illegally amassed 3.2bn yuan (pounds 246m) by offering to pay interest rates of up to 60 per cent. More than 300 government units and individuals fell for her scam.
n In Peking, prosecutors said they had uncovered 948 cases of bribery and corruption in the first half of the year, nearly as many as during the whole of 1994. In Shanghai, regulators said they had unearthed more than pounds 4.2m of money stashed away in slush funds by public institutions, mainly schools, hospitals, and state-owned shops and construction firms.
Corruption in the government, judiciary and state industry now regularly tops the list of public complaints in surveys. In an attempt to appease the discontented public, the state media highlights officials who have been rumbled. Last week, for instance, we learnt that in Tonghua city, Jilin province, charges have been laid against Gao Feng, the former deputy party secretary, and his mistress for embezzling at least 70,000 yuan (pounds 5,400). "A provincial anti-corruption inspection team discovered that he had taken bribes and enjoyed the company of beautiful women, after they were told of his behaviour by workers," the Xinhua news agency said.
But the fight against corruption is proving an uphill struggle. Last week it was announced that 11 teams of Communist Party inspectors were being sent out across China to conduct open and secret investigations in dance halls, nightclubs and restaurants, looking for cadres still enjoying themselves on the public purse. "The use of public funds by senior leaders for eating and entertainment has aroused much resentment among the masses," said Fan Xinde, the spokesman of the party's Central Discipline Inspection Commission.
The number of fancy cars on the roads is a long-standing source of resentment for the majority who still travel by bicycle. At the National Library, Yang Baojing, deputy general manager of the state-owned Peking City Municipal Auction Agency, said tomorrow's auction "has active social significance for promoting leadership image". But he insisted that "it is confidential who is selling". All he would admit was that Peking's new "car clearance office" had told certain bureaux that such models were no longer permitted.
Many of the potential bidders inspecting the vehicles, however, expressed disappointment at the quality. "The mileage is too high," complained one man.