It is reported that during the upcoming Spring Festival traffic rush, a new identification system will be carried out at 37 stations in the southern Guangdong and Hunan provinces, as well as the southwestern province of Sichuan. Passengers will be required to show their ID cards or present 1 of 20 other forms of identification when purchasing train tickets.
Although this regulation has been discussed for quite some time now, the sudden approval and implementation of the system comes as a shock to many people, including myself.
Various people, including high-profile public figures, such as representatives of the National People's Congress (NPC) and members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), have called for the identification system for at least six or seven years now. However, until recently, railway authorities refused.
During Spring Festival in 2008, a spokesman for the Ministry of Railways announced that the ministry would not enforce the identification-upon-purchase system. The spokesman commented that the system would raise operation costs and would not be able to effectively stop ticket-scalping. Last year, many engineers from various railway departments also held the same view regarding the regulation.
With these dissenting words still ringing in our ears, why has the identification system suddenly appeared like a gift from Santa? Some say it is a victory for the public. To be sure, the public plays the role of an agenda-setter; however, we should be cautious and not overestimate the power of the public.
The real power lies in the top-down leaders' instructions and the local governments with something to gain. The system has not changed due to public opinion or supervision by the People's Congress.
On January 14 last year, President Hu Jintao issued instructions urging railway departments to take measures to fight against scalpers and ease ticket shortages during the Spring Festival traffic rush. This is the top-down pressure.
As for the benefits of the local governments, I think it is easy to see. Why did the railway departments use the Guangzhou and Chengdu railway stations as pilots for the ticket system? The reason is that these two railway stations have some of the largest flows of people in China during Spring Festival.
As it is very difficult to purchase a train ticket at the two stations, the local government has quite a lot of pressure to ensure everyone's safety. Millions of people gather at the train station during this time. If a terrorist incident occurred at the station or even just a rumor surfaced, think of the chaos that would ensue.
At one time, the Ministry of Railways spokesman said, "An extremely high number of people travel during Chinese New Year. The identification system will cause inconveniences to the station's service department and make queues to buy tickets longer."
How ridiculous! Actually, millions of people queuing at the station due to ticket-scalping presents the greatest potential safety hazard. Although the new system won't develop China's railway transportation capacity, it will definitely ease ticket shortages during Spring Festival, no doubt harming the interests of people stockpiling tickets and reselling them at higher prices.
We also have reason to believe that since the regulation can be carried out at the stations with the largest flow of people, it is feasible to implement at other stations across the country. All sectors of the community should put consistent and heavy pressure on rail reform. The railway departments should have the courage to fight against improper and illegal interests. If the authorities and the National People's Congress truly and sincerely show courage and determination to take practical measures, I think the reform will not be as difficult as we imagine.
(This post was first published in Chinese on January 11, 2010 and translated by Ma Yujia.)