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At first they were despised as a symbol of foreign plans to carve China into colonies. Now, as the country prepares for its annual mass migration, trains have become a symbol for something equally as toxic to China's future: Official corruption.
The video above, shot on a cell phone earlier this month, shows a Beijing railway official printing off piles of tickets while refusing to respond to the ticket-hungry crowd outside her window. As various outlets have reported (most recently NPR), the video has sent the country into a fit of collective apoplexy, with many taking it as conclusive evidence of railway employee involvement in the loathsome, but highly lucrative, tradition of train ticket scalping.
According to Li Jinsong, a lawyer quoted in the NPR piece, only 30 to 40 percent of train tickets in China actually make it to the ticket windows. The rest are either unloaded through the black market or given as gifts to officials.
Ordinarily a video like this might make for only mild outrage, but it comes on the cusp of the Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) holiday, when many tens of millions swarm train stations for long-awaited trips home. People can wait in line for days and still fail to get tickets, leaving them at the mercy of scalpers who seem to have no qualms whatsoever about exploiting their customers' desperation.
The blog chinaSMACK has a full account of the controversy, including the government's rather anemic response.
A GlobalPost dispatch on the China train experience is forthcoming. In the meantime, I'm off to spend the New Year with my girlfriend's family in Tangshan, end point of China's first train line. I'll be traveling by car.