Why do bad things sometimes happen to good people? This is a question weighing on the minds of two Chinese railway officers.
Liu Xiaoping and Liao Xuzhen – two railway staff at the Dongguan train station – were both fired after photographs of them helping to push Spring Festival passengers through train windows surfaced online.
According to Dongguan Daily, the train to Xinyang, Henan, stopped at the city for only four minutes, where there were over 1,500 passengers waiting to get on the train. So, desperate travellers resorted to squeezing through the windows to get on.
“It was impossible for all the passengers to get on to the train in such a short time. The staffers were just kindly giving a hand so the passengers could get home for Spring Festival. We never expected such a serious consequence,” an officer at the station told the local paper.
“They (the photos) showed the station in chaos and the management was ineffective,” a spokeswoman of Guangzhou Railway Group says in way of explanation for why the two officers were fired.
Netizens, however, are sympathetic. A survey conducted on Sina.com, a popular internet portal, showed about 79% of 188,455 respondents were against firing the two officers; 17% supported the decision; 4% were undecided.
“It was impossible for 1,500 people to get on the train in 4 minutes; these officers were merely trying to help,” a netizen wrote. Many online commentators thought inefficient transportation should be blamed for the chaos instead.
For the country’s 210 million migrant workers, climbing through windows to crowd onto trains is something of an annual ritual. The Spring Festival, or Lunar New Year, is easily the year’s most important holiday. Factories and mines close for as long as two weeks, giving migrant workers their one chance of the year to return to their home provinces with gifts for the family.
But going home is a gruelling process and the nation’s rail lines are swamped by the world’s largest human migration – a process known as chunyun (spring transportation). Tens of millions of travellers wait in freezing cold temperatures for hours, sometimes days, to secure a train ticket. Despite spending vast amounts on its railway networks, the supply of train tickets often fails to meet demand.
Many blame the railway staff for hoarding tickets and then profiteering off the New Year’s rush. Touts, known as huangniu in China, are notorious for colluding with railway officials to buy up large blocks of tickets and resell them at higher prices. And it’s big business: touts generate about Rmb1.8 billion every Spring Festival, according to government statistics.
Resentment towards the railway authorities was underscored by a widely circulated video clip on the internet last year, in which a female ticket seller at Beijing Railway Station was filmed purportedly printing out tickets well before they were officially allowed to go on sale. Netizens were outraged; even President Hu Jintao had to step in and order the Ministry of Railways to “brainstorm” measures to bring order to the sale of tickets.
So what the railway authorities have come up with is a new system that requires passengers to give their names and identity numbers when booking tickets. The name-based ticketing system, which is being tested in 37 stations, prevents touts from buying too many tickets and reselling them.
But local press say touts “with inside connections” will remain active. A reporter at Yancheng Evening News tried to book a ticket under his name but was told the tickets he wanted were sold out. Yet when he handed over his ID information to a tout he was immediately given a confirmation number to buy tickets for the day and destination he requested.
“Powerful scalpers have insiders working with ticketing companies,” Yang Tao, a procurator in Jiangxi province, writes in the Oriental Morning Post. “The identity-tagged system will just cause a reshuffle. Those with the best connections will expand their business.”
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