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Want a new car in Beijing? Sorry, there's just too much traffic.

China banned all car sales in Beijing from Dec. 24 until its new lottery system comes up with the names of the 20,000 applicants who will have the right to buy license plates this month.

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Vehicles pack the main roads during the day in central Beijing, China, Dec. 23, 2010.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP/File

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Li Wen’s Citroen car showroom was silent and deserted Wednesday, save for clumps of bored salesmen in red and blue anoraks with nothing to do.

Two weeks earlier, Mr. Li recalls, “it was packed. We were open till 3 in the morning, there were 200 people in here, and all customers could do was say whether they wanted a car or not. It took 10 minutes to sell a car that night. There was no bargaining.”

Since then, Li has not sold a single vehicle at any of the four dealerships he runs. Like every other automobile dealer in Beijing, he knows he won’t see another client for another three weeks, thanks to drastic new government rules designed to get a grip on the city’s increasingly appalling traffic.

In 2009, China overtook the US to become the world's largest consumer of cars and it's still growing rapidly. The number of cars on Beijing’s roads has nearly doubled in the past five years, making driving in the city center at almost any hour a nightmare.

The government banned all car sales in the capital from Dec. 24 until its new lottery system comes up with the names of the 20,000 lucky applicants who will have the right to buy license plates this month.

One hundred thousand wannabe car owners have so far put their names in the drawing, to be announced on Jan. 26.

The lottery system will authorize the purchase of 240,000 cars this year. Another 160,000 are expected to be bought by customers who have their existing cars destroyed, or who sell their vehicles to used car dealers – they will be allowed to keep their plates and will be exempt from the lottery.

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