WUHAN, CHINA — Railroad tickets are a dangerous business in China.
Retired military man Wang Hanlin opened a travel agency here a decade ago, but found that the best seats disappeared no matter how early you tried to buy them.
When he asked why, Wang recalls, he was told to keep his mouth shut. When he persisted, he got his answer from six thugs who jumped him in broad daylight and beat him with a pipe, smashing his legs.
Wang, now 64, says he knows who arranged the beating: Liu Zhixiang, director of one of Wuhan's two train stations and the younger brother of a powerful Communist Party official who was about to become railway minister.
Although Wang still limps, he was lucky. Another businessman was stabbed and bled to death in front of his wife and child. Shocked prosecutors arrested Liu and found $5 million in cash stashed in his home. He was convicted in 2006 of arranging the killing and received a suspended death sentence, which is usually commuted to life in prison.
But the railroad ticket business remains corrupt and staggeringly inefficient. Its dysfunction is most glaring at this time of year, when 200 million Chinese head to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year, which begins today. It is one of the biggest migrations in the world.
Of all the forms of corruption in China, the trade in train tickets is one of those that most frustrates ordinary people. It is not uncommon for people to spend two or three days at the station trying to buy tickets.
In the weeks leading up to this year's holiday, a 60-year-old migrant worker died of hypothermia while he waited outside a station in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province to buy tickets. Last year, a young woman heading home from college was pushed onto the tracks at a station in Anhui province and killed.
The quest for tickets becomes a national obsession. People greet one another with, "Do you have tickets?" Classifieds websites are filled with plaintive requests.
At Beijing West station recently, a swarm of humanity filled a cavernous waiting room. Lines at ticket counters were long, but not too long -- because no one expects to be able to buy tickets through official channels. Instead, people looked for scalpers or stood holding pieces of paper on which they'd written their intended destinations.
Huang Huidang, a 28-year-old lighting engineer, said he had been at the station almost 24 hours looking for tickets to Anhui for him, his wife and their baby. Knowing that tickets go on sale 10 days before departure, he had arrived the evening before.
"When the ticket window opened at 9 a.m., I was the fourth person in line. But there were no tickets with seats. Even the first person didn't get tickets," said Huang, who was now looking for a scalper.
Chinese are ordinarily reluctant to criticize their country to foreign journalists, but on the subject of railroad tickets they quickly let loose, often interjecting profanities.
"Nobody gets tickets by standing in line," said Han Wei, 40, who works for a Beijing science academy. He said he had tried four times in the last seven years to buy a ticket home to Lanzhou for the holidays and had never gotten one through legal channels.
The government blames an imbalance of supply and demand. With the economy on the skids this year, demand is especially high as the newly unemployed extend the holiday.
But the public is skeptical. Li Jinsong, a Beijing lawyer, recently prepared an analysis that found 188 million tickets available, meaning that all but 12 million of the estimated 200 million travelers should be able to get tickets. Even the China Daily, normally a government mouthpiece, said recently, "Why we can't buy a railroad ticket through the ticket counter still remains something of a mystery."
This month, a frustrated buyer videotaped an agent at the Beijing station who appeared to be taking orders on her cellphone and printing tickets while ignoring the crowd waiting in line outside her window.
Almost 5,000 scalpers have been arrested this month in a crackdown, with each new bust getting big headlines. The government has also shut down more than a dozen websites where people privately traded and sold tickets.
Whistle-blowers like Wang say the police pick up only small fry. "They are poor people, maybe migrant workers. . . . Anyway, they arrest them, and more keep coming back, like wildfires with the spring wind," Wang said. "The important scalpers with the good tickets are the ones with connections inside the railroad."
Another problem is that the Railway Ministry sets aside up to 30% of the tickets for government officials, journalists and others with influence. Away from the swarm at the Beijing station, tickets were being sold from a small window at a ministry administrative building around the corner.