China could end up adopting a zero-emission vehicle mandate much sooner than expected, according to a leading analyst.

Colin McKerracher, head of advanced transport at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said the policy switch could happen “in the next couple of years.”

Policymakers were said to be mulling the change in August, just before news broke that a number of Chinese manufacturers were engaged in fraud and abusing the country’s current electric vehicle subsidy scheme.

Last month Suzhou-based Gemsea Coach was stripped of its production license after faking documents to collect 261.6 million yuan (USD $39 million) in subsidies for 1,131 vehicles that never made it onto the road.

Meanwhile, four other manufacturers -- Chery Wanda Bus, Higer Bus Co., Shaolin Bus and Shenzhen Wuzhoulong Motors Group -- received fines worth half the value of subsidies they had taken.

Altogether, the five companies are thought to have taken around $150 million illegally from the subsidy scheme.

It is not clear if a Chinese government probe into the electric-vehicle industry covering around 90 manufacturers has revealed further instances of fraud. McKerracher said other cases could be around the corner.

“The subsidy structure left a lot of room for manufacturers to claim they had sold vehicles and not actually have them licensed and get put on the road,” he said. “That’s partially because the subsidy was directed at manufacturers rather than end users.”

The new draft policy is said to be inspired by California’s zero emission mandate, which requires carmakers to sell a given number of low-carbon vehicles every year, based on each firm's total sales volume.

“It’s been batted around for after 2020, after the current incentives phase out,” said McKerracher. “But we think they may do that sooner than expected because of some of the limitations associated with the way the existing scheme is set up. That would be a big event.”

As in California, vehicle owners in China already get generous incentives for choosing to go electric. These have already helped China become the world’s leading nation for electric-vehicle adoption, with registrations jumping 95 percent year-on-year for the month of August.

China is likely to end up boasting half of the world’s electric-vehicle sales this year. But China’s leaders clearly feel the market needs an extra push, and believe the Californian experience could hold the clue.

“This is being done for multiple reasons,” said McKerracher. “It’s not just for reduced oil imports or cleaner air in cities. There’s also a major industrial policy angle to this. China is trying to build a cluster of domestic automakers capable of exporting to the world and leapfrogging established brands.”

Chinese leaders are aiming to steal a lead on the electric-vehicle markets of the future.

Leaving aside recent cases of fraud, the electric-vehicle subsidy program has also drawn Chinese investors to back ambitious ventures such as the LeSEE, a highly anticipated electric car being built by internet TV giant LeEco, as well as U.S.-based Faraday Future.

Whether or not Chinese-financed startups will dominate the electric-car scene remains to be seen.

Chinese policymakers are finding that overly generous incentives spawned speculative startups with no real prospects for success. 

The Chinese government has already taken steps to halt the boom in automotive manufacturing hopefuls, this year narrowing the list of battery makers certified to operate in the market.

Replacing today’s generous subsidies with a more focused zero-emissions vehicle mandate may be another attempt to make growth more sustainable.

“I think they’re trying to winnow it down to a few really strong companies rather than the dozens or even hundreds that you have now,” said McKerracher.