China Train Travelers Want A Ticket To Ride

The Year of the Ox begins on Monday. In the month before and after the Chinese New Year, an estimated 188 million Chinese passengers will endure long crowded train rides. The first hardship with the journey is just getting a ticket. Public anger at issues, including ticket scalping, recently boiled over forcing China's president to take action.

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The Year of the Ox begins Monday in China, which means train travel. An estimated 188 million Chinese passengers will endure hours and even days on crowded trains over the biggest holiday of the year. And the journey's first hardship is just getting a ticket. That can be a hurdle, in part, because of ticket scalping. Public anger over this issue recently boiled over, forcing China's president to take action. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Beijing.

(Soundbite of people speaking Mandarin)

ANTHONY KUHN: On January 10th, a traveler at the Beijing railway station used a cell phone to videotape the ticket seller behind window number 37. The clerk printed out over 100 tickets and arranged them in piles behind the closed window.

(Soundbite of people speaking Mandarin)

KUHN: She's leaving the tickets for insiders, says one ticket buyer. Report her. Upload the video to the Internet. She's utterly shameless, chimes in another customer. No wonder none of us can buy tickets. The video was put on the Internet, and netizens were outraged.

(Soundbite of Chinese news report)

Unidentified Reporter: (Mandarin spoken).

KUHN: Four days later, state television reported that President Hu Jintao had issued instructions to railway officials to, quote, turn on their brains, unquote, and find ways to fix the ticket problem. The following morning, Vice Minister of Railways Wang Zhiguo denied to reporters that the ticket seller in the video was putting aside tickets for personal connections. But he said...

(Soundbite of press conference)

Mr. WANG ZHIGUO (Vice Minister of Railways, China): (Mandarin spoken) The actions of a ticket seller at window 37 caused some misunderstandings that hurt travelers' feelings. I sincerely apologize to travelers on behalf of the Railway Ministry.

KUHN: It's a common experience for rail travelers in China. You're first in line at the ticket window before tickets for your train go on sale. But when the window opens, you're told that tickets are sold out. The government says that the nation's railway system is simply overburdened, but many travelers say that's beside the point. Electrical engineer John Li Kun(ph) is waiting for a train at the Beijing station.

Mr. JOHN LI KUN: (Mandarin spoken) The reason it's hard to buy tickets isn't that there aren't enough of them. It's because the tickets don't make it to the windows, where people line up to buy them. Many tickets are set aside for insiders.

KUHN: And that, experts say, is where scalpers get tickets. Most of China's economy has been privatized over the past 30 years of market reforms, but key industries, including transportation, energy and telecommunications, are still government monopolies that are subject to little public oversight. The current scandal is a holdover from the days of the planned economy, when getting scarce commodities, like lean pork, was nearly impossible without resorting to personal connections or the black market. Beijing-based lawyer Li Jing Song(ph) explains how train stations now operate.

Mr. LI JING SONG (Attorney, Beijing, China): (Mandarin spoken) Only 30 or 40 percent of the tickets make it to the windows to be sold fairly. Another 30 or 40 percent are sold through inside channels. Up to 10 percent are reserved for officials on public business.

KUHN: Li researched the matter in order to sue the Beijing railway station over the way it sells tickets. Li was not too surprised that he lost the suit. After all, the court belongs to the Railway Ministry, which also has its own police. Li also learned about ticket sales from the case of Li Zhijun(ph). He was the head of a train station in the midwestern city of Wuhan. In 2006, he was given a suspended death sentence for, among other things, amassing a small fortune from the sale of tickets to scalpers. Chinese media did report the incident, but they left out one important detail: Li Zhijun's older brother is Liu Zhijun, China's railway minister since 2003.Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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