A landmark public hearing on the price of rail transport is scheduled to take place in Beijing on Saturday.
Thirty-three people have been invited to air their views over the Ministry of Railways' application to change ticket prices.
The 33 include railway experts and National People's Congress delegates. Twelve are consumer representatives from different regions.
The hearing will be the first organized by the State Development Planning Commission, the country's pricing regulator authorized by the central government.
Wang Yang, vice-minister of the commission, said: "We have made ample preparations for the hearing."
But Wang refused to go into details over the ministry's 150-page application, which consists of 10 related documents on cost accounting, financial reports and other issues.
"I don't want to reveal the ministry's applied price-float range before the hearing takes place," Wang told more than 100 journalists at a press conference yesterday. He later told China Daily that the representatives had begun studying the ministry's documents.
The 33 representatives are expected to sound out grass-roots public opinion, Wang said.
But he played down people's expectations over the hearing by stressing that the representatives had only been authorized by the Price Law to collectively decide whether "the applied float scope is high or low."
He explained: "They are not authorized to decide on the range, which is the business of selected experts and pricing regulators."
Li Dekun, head of the commission's Pricing Department, said the hearing was expected to set an example for provincial-level governments on how to preside over such events.
Li's commission recently issued a circular calling on monopoly industries, such as telecommunications and transport, to conduct public hearings before changing their prices. The circular said the opinions of consumers and experts must be taken into account.
The Ministry of Railways drew widespread public criticism last year when it unilaterally raised passengers' ticket prices during Spring Festival last January.
Qiao Zhanxiang, a lawyer from Hebei Province, even brought the ministry to court for failing to comply with the Price Law.
Qiao lost the case in a first-instance verdict but he has lodged an appeal. The case is being heard at Beijing Intermediate People's Court.
Li said: "The present hearing is not related to the case."
But Wang said the case had helped the government accelerate the establishment of procedures for public hearings.
Following the commission's circular, transport departments across the country have held or are expected to hold public hearings before changing ticket prices for the upcoming Spring Festival, a traditional time for family reunions.
The Ministry of Railways did not officially comment on the hearing but sources with the ministry confirmed it plans to increase ticket prices.
(China Daily January 7, 2002)