China’s Chunyun ticket rush reflects myriad class divide

Alia | January 22nd, 2013 - 4:08 am

It’s that time of the year again in China – Chunyun (春运), or literally, the Spring Festival travel season, the largest annual human migration in the word. The 2013 Chunyun starts around January, 26 and ends at around March, 6, lasting about 40 days. The number of passenger journeys during these 40 days will exceed 3.4 billion, more than twice the size of China’s population, according to numbers from China’s Railway Ministry. 

But to finish a journey travelling with millions of others isn’t even the toughest part of Chunyun, to get a ticket to be able to start that journey is. This year, the always-controversial Chunyun ticket rush continues to create controversies.

People mountain people sea at the rail station

The World Ticketing War

12306.cn is the official online ticket sales website of China’s Railway Ministry. In a word, it’s a fcked-up site on all ends from aesthetics, functionality to user-friendliness. For a website that cost some $52 million to build, it’s a fail beyond words. In additional to extremely slow loading speed, the site literally puts its users into virtual lines that last from 30 mins to several hours before their transactions being processed, that is to say, the transaction is being processed at all. Usually what most users get at the end is that their transaction has failed or their tickets are gone, and that they need to start over.

12306’s failure creates opportunities for other internet companies in China. This year, Kingsoft, 360, Tencent and many other domestic browser operators have released ticket purchasing plugins to help customers buy train tickets more efficiently. Many of these plugins work by automatically refreshing 12306 ticketing pages non-stop. The user will see/hear an alert when something is available. Needless to say, the use of such plugins hugely increases the load on 12306’s server. In fact, not only to 12306′s server, but also to that of GitHub’s, world’s leading social coding site. On the evening of Jan, 15, the load from these ticket purchasing plugins was so huge that GitHub was once slow to a point where guys at Github thought there might be an attack…

To protect its share of the cake, the Railway Ministry urged domestic browser companies to stop using these plugins. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology also stepped in and ordered a ban. Github, possibly due to its link with these plugins, was recently found to be completely blocked in mainland China. Nevertheless,  major ticket purchasing plugins are still working as usual. 360 even officially announced that they won’t stop providing ticket purchasing plugins for the benefits of their users.

Is it fare to use ticket purchasing plugins?

Much of the debate on this on-going war over online train ticket sales is focused on whether the Brother Rail has become too big a monopoly to keep and whether it’s legal for the Railway Ministry to interfere with other companies’ online operations. But more interestingly, some discussions have pointed to a deeper social problem in China – the digital divide, or, rather, the class divide.

We don’t hear much about the phrase “digital divide” as we used to during the first few years of the information age. Part of the reason is that the divide has already disappeared in many countries where people enjoy an internet penetration rate of over 70%. But in a country like China, and many other developing countries alike, the concept is still very relevant when making policies that may have impact on the country’s entire population. For example, Chunyun ticket sales.

By the end of 2012, China has 564 million internet users (CNNIC, 2012). While the sheer number is huge, it only accounts for about 42% of China’s entire population. And the majority of the 42% are young urbanites (under 40 years old) who are either students or young professionals. It’s the away-from-homes among this 42% who can take advantage of an online ticketing platform like 12306. And not even all of them are tech-savvy enough to know how to use a ticket purchasing plugin.

On the other hand, most of those who will join the Chunyun migration are the real migrants, the vast troops of migrant workers who leave their poor rural hometowns for a better living in China’s big cities. Most of them have neither the access to, nor the knowledge of, how to purchase tickets online, let only how to use a ticket purchasing plugin. By far, most migrant workers buy train tickets by standing in lines in front ticket booths for hours, and sometimes days, in winter chill. For them, the digital divide may mean a very real one that literally divides them and their families several thousand miles away.

For example, netizens found that the “migrant worker group buy” option on 12306 always return “sold out.” In response, someone working at 12306 told journalists that the migrant worker group buy search, by design, wouldn’t return any ticket information. The best way for migrants workers to get a ticket is to purchase at ticket booths.

The digital divide, as it has always been in developing countries, is a class divide at heart. The use of ticket purchasing plugins have put the impacts of the digital divide under spotlight. Netizen 二逼瓦西里 argued: “Speaking of fairness, ticket purchasing plugins are far from fair play. We don’t have nearly enough tickets for Chunyun, and cheap train tickets are like social welfare. As a result, online ticketing is no longer a sales channel, but more like social welfare distribution. To use plugins to buy online tickets is no different from strong young men elbowing out elderly ladies for free food.”

So will all-offline ticketing restore fairness to the less tech-savvy and the underprivileged? Of course not. That’d be moving backwards. One solution, as Kai-Fu Lee, former president of Google China, suggested, is for the Railway Ministry to reasonably distribute tickets for online and offline sales.

Currently such a distribution mechanism is actually already in place. Approximately 35% of all train tickets are sold online, about 4% are sold through hotlines, and the rest at ticket booths. Even if we assume that these numbers are based on robust research among rail passengers, it doesn’t really solve anything.

Some others, however, argued that the existence of a distribution system is unfair in the first place. They proposed to break the monopoly of Big Brother Rail and bring in private partners to better manage ticket sales.

To explain why online ticket rush is unfair to the less vocal who are most in need of tickets, People’s Daily used the following image. To the same image, popular media professional 张鹏 commented, “Many people debated about whether the use of ticket purchasing plugins is unfair and whether it will make more people unable to buy tickets. The viral image explains very well about what is fairness and what is justice, but when it comes to train tickets, I think the fundamental solution is to take down the wall.”

Caijing, an independent Beijing finance and economics publication, also offered its take on the matter: “On one end of this debate of ticket purchasing plugins are migrant workers without necessary tech know-hows. On the other end are tech-savvy young professionals. The war between these two groups is a reflection of the current social reality in China…The non solution of Chenyun may indicate an end of systems in which powers are highly concentrated.”

 

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