China has been collecting an annual road maintenance fee from vehicle owners since the 1960s to fix and build roads.
Of course, back then government agencies and business enterprises paid the fee; they basically had the only vehicles on the road. People didn't own cars as they do now.
But in the past few months, a controversy has been raging over whether such a fee is even legal. One professor in Beijing believes it is not, and many people agree with him.
Zhou Ze submitted a letter to the National People's Congress on Monday, calling for the regulations on the collection of the road maintenance fee to be re-examined.
Zhou, a formal legal news writer, and now a lawyer and an assistant professor at China Youth University for Political Science, said he believed the collection of road maintenance fees, totaling about 540 billion yuan (US$67.5 billion) in the past six years, has been illegal since 1999.
He expressed his opinion in an article in Procuratorial Daily in August that aroused wide debate in the media and among the public.
Zhou was asked to write a commentary on a startling piece of news from Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province.
Road maintenance fees are collected by local administrations under the Ministry of Communications. The local administrations notify car owners through the media that they need to pay the next year's road maintenance fee, which varies by location. In Beijing, for example, a small-car owner pays 1,440 yuan (US$180) a year.
The communications administration in Zhengzhou told a car owner who had not paid the road maintenance fee since 2002 to pay 490,000 yuan (US$61,250) in back fees and late fines.
A public outcry arose over how the total amount due could be so high.
Zhou said that when he studied relevant laws and regulations, he found that the collection of a road maintenance fee is not legal at all, not to mention the way the overdue fine is calculated.
"The revised Law on Highways states the legislative intent clearly, which is to abandon the road maintenance fee," Zhou said.
Article 36 of the law says that funds for highway maintenance should be acquired through collection of a surcharge paid by units and individuals in purchase of petrol. The State Council, it says, shall set specific procedures for the purpose.
"The law does not provide for the collection of a road maintenance fee," Zhou told China Daily in a phone interview. "Citizens have not needed to pay the fee since October 31, 1999, when the revised highway law was enacted."
China does have a pilot program to collect a petrol tax in Hainan Province, but so far, the road maintenance fee remains intact.
The Ministry of Communications has given no explanation or response to the issue so far. It did, however, issue a circular at the end of October saying the fee for 2007 will be collected as usual in December.
Local communications administrations cite a circular issued by the State Council in 2000 as the basis for their position. It states that, before the fuel tax collection starts, road maintenance fees should be collected.
The State Council also approved and announced a reform plan on taxes and fees of communications and vehicles drafted by several ministries in the circular. The reform plan said that collection of the road maintenance fee would be stopped when the petrol surcharge is collected.
"According to the second sentence of Article 36, the State Council is authorized by the National People's Congress to issue such an administrative rule," said Zhang Zhuting, professor at the Beijing Communications Management Institute for Executives.
The administrative rule says clearly that the road maintenance fee will be collected until the implementation of the petrol tax, Zhang said.
Protecting its interests? Both Zhou Ze and Jiang Ming'an, a professor at Peking University, disagreed.
"The State Council is authorized to set specific procedures and steps for the purpose of collecting fuel tax, not to maintain the status quo in collecting road maintenance fees," Jiang said.
Jiang believed that the government's failure to come up with a specific procedure to collect the petrol surcharge is an "omission." Doing nothing in six years after the Highway Law was revised, the government has used more than an appropriate time for such an authorization, he said.
"It is the communications administration that makes every effort to delay the fuel tax because it wants to protect its own interests," Zhou said.
That's because the petrol tax, whenever it takes effect, will be collected by the State Administration of Taxation. The central government will take 40 percent of the revenue and distribute the rest to local governments.
The local communications administrations, therefore, may face a huge gap in administrative costs. They also will have to move thousands of workers who now collect road maintenance fees to other jobs.
For their part, Zhou and those who agree with his view have no choice but to wait. "I have no idea when my suggestion will be heeded, but this is the only way that I can think of to ask the government to stop the illegal collection of road maintenance fees," he said.
(China Daily November 3, 2006)