Chinese Blame New Year Travel Chaos on Corruption

Daily News Article   —   Posted on January 26, 2009

Note:  This article is from the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph:

(by David Eimer, Telegraph.co.uk) BEIJING – The largest annual migration of humanity in the world begins this weekend as hundreds of millions of passengers return to their home towns and villages for the Chinese New Year.

But the overcrowded train carriages are more likely to be filled with anger than joy for those lucky enough to secure tickets.

Outrage over the ordeal of buying a ticket has threatened to boil over with attacks on the corruption and inefficiency of the state-run China Railways made by everyone from humble migrant workers to China’s President Hu Jintao, who ordered the Ministry of Railways to “use its brains” in a rare public criticism of a state-run body.

The lack of tickets is being widely blamed on collusion between corrupt railway staff and [scalpers – the British word for scalper is tout].

In one widely-reported incident at Beijing West Railway Station, travellers who had been waiting since long before dawn to buy tickets watched as the station clock was wound back by 15 minutes at 9am, the time the ticket office opens. The delay enabled staff to print out hundreds of tickets to be sold to the [scalpers]. Fifteen minutes later the clock was reset. A video posted on Youtube showed a clerk printing out tickets while ignoring the pleas of people trying to buy them.

The Ministry of Railways has hit back at the criticism, claiming the shortage of tickets was due to the government’s failure to upgrade the ageing rail network despite three decades of continuous economic growth.

Last year’s New Year holiday, which is known in China as Spring Festival, was blighted by blizzards that stranded hundreds of thousands of people at train stations in southern China. But this year’s travel chaos has been blamed on corruption.

Allegations have flown that railway employees have joined forces with touts to take advantage of demand, with a record 188 million passengers expected to travel by train during the holiday – an increase of eight per cent on last year.

“The reason it’s so difficult to buy a ticket is because the railway staff are selling a lot of them to the ticket [scalpers],” said Fang Baole. The 25-year-old shop assistant made two fruitless trips to Beijing’s main railway station to try to buy a ticket home to Changzhou in Jiangsu Province in eastern China.

“I was very angry at having to stand in the cold for hours and go away empty-handed. In the end, I had to buy one from a ticket [scalper] on the internet. I had to pay an extra 90 Yuan [$13.20], but I had no choice.”

Internet forums have been dominated in the last week by complaints about corrupt railway staff. Despite promises by the Ministry of Railways and police to crack down on [scalpers], they were operating openly at Beijing’s main railway station.

One middle-aged woman was offering tickets at three times their face value next to a police post. She declined to say where she had got the tickets, but insisted they were genuine. “Of course they are real. If they were forgeries, you wouldn’t have to pay so much for them,” she told The Sunday Telegraph.

Even when travellers can buy a ticket, they face horrendous journeys on [overcrowded] trains… . Zhao Weiping, a 28-year-old computer engineer, was forced to stand for half of his 17-hour trip home from Beijing to Changsha in southern Hunan Province.

“It took me almost five days to buy a ticket and then I couldn’t get a seat until eight hours into the journey,” he said.

Like many passengers, Mr Zhao would like to see the railways change the ticket system to thwart the touts.

“They should put people’s names on the tickets, like they do with air tickets,” he said. China Railways have claimed that would be impractical.

Instead, they have said that investing in the railways will enable them to run more trains. Upgrading the rail network is a key part of the government’s four trillion yuan [approximately $587 billion] plan to boost the economy by massive spending on infrastructure.

Going home for the New Year holiday is a deeply-ingrained tradition in China, and for millions of migrant workers who have moved to the booming cities to work it will be a once-a-year chance to see their families. In total, the government expects 2.3 billion journeys to be made on China’s transport network during the holiday. The vast majority, however, will be made by road.

Information appearing on telegraph.co.uk is the copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited and must not be reproduced in any medium without licence. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from the Telegraph. Visit the website at telegraph.co.uk.

Questions

NOTE: a scalper is a person who sells tickets for something such as a sports game or theatre performance unofficially, usually at a much higher price than the official price [the British word for scalper is tout] (from dictionary.cambridge.org)

1. a) What is the population of China? (do an internet search for “population of China” or find the answer at the CIA World FactBook link in “Resources” below)
b) How many people are expected to travel by train in China during the 2009 Chinese New Year holiday?

2. Why are many people in China having trouble purchasing train tickets to return home for the New Year celebration this year?

3. How has the state-run Ministry of Railways responded to the accusations?

4. What evidence did reporter David Eimer offer from Beijing to confirm complaints about scalpers selling train tickets?

5. In addition to problems purchasing tickets, what challenge do travelers face once they actually get on a train?

6. Why do so many people travel over Chinese New Year?

7. How do you think Chinese response to corruption and inefficiency differs from what American response would be to the same issues? Explain your answer.


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Background

Chinese New Year or Spring Festival is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. It is often called the Lunar New Year, especially by people in mainland China and Taiwan. The festival traditionally begins on the first day of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar and ends on the 15th; this day is called Lantern Festival. Chinese New Year’s Eve is known as Chúxī. It literally means “Year-pass Eve”.

The period around Chinese New Year is also the time of the largest human migration, when migrant workers in China, as well as overseas Chinese around the world travel home to have reunion dinners with their families on Chinese New Year’s eve. More interurban trips are taken in mainland China in this 40-day period than the total population of China. This period is called Chunyun.

Resources

Read about Chinese New Year at the http://www.c-c-c.org/chineseculture/festival/newyear/newyear.html.

For statistics, background and a map of China, go to the CIA World FactBook website.

Watch a video of a Chinese ticket agent printing tickets said to be for scalpers while many people wait in line to purchase tickets from the agent – at youtube.com.