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Railway’s Move Online Worsens Chinese New Year's Travel Crunch

Mark Zuckerberg, eat your heart out.  12306.cn may not sound like the most alluring, or easy to remember, website, but starting on January fifth of this year its average daily page views have exceeded 1 billion, making it one of the world’s most trafficked sites.  No, it’s not the next Facebook or Google.  It’s the rather staid ticketing portal for the Chinese railway.

The phenomenon powering this site’s popularity is China’s perenially hectic Lunar New Year travel season.  Travelers will make roughly three billion trips during a period of some forty days – with each train, plane or bus journey counted as a separate trip – as they hurry to and from China’s teeming metropolises to reunite with their families.

To create a (still inadequate) analogy with the United States would require piling Christmas on top of Thanksgiving, with Black Friday and a few long weekends tossed in for good measure.  All this in a country with more than four times the population of the United States and a sometimes rather unreliable transportation system.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that snarls and hiccups abound.  The railway system, which due to its low cost carries the bulk of travelers, switched for the first time this year to an online booking system to relieve the pressure at ticket windows.  Aside from painful wait times and website crashes, the move has exacerbated already painful class division by styming many travelers who lack the basic web-savvy necessary to negotiate the website.

One highly frustrated netizen perhaps summed it up best: “To the railway’s customer service center – 12306 – I just want to say to you the name of the animal pictured [a ‘grass mud horse’, a pun for one of the worst insults in the Chinese language] the number of times pictured.”

Many of the unfortunate travelers are migrant workers, of which China has over 200 million.  They work away from home for much of the year, can usually only afford to travel by train and are willing to, and often do, endure extreme inconveniences in order to get home to their loved ones for this most treasured of traditional family reunions.

This year, one such worker, Li Zhuqing, who does not know how to use the Internet and was unable to buy a ticket over the phone, slept in the Hangzhou train station for six straight nights in the hopes of buying a ticket home for his family.  His 80-year-old mother cried over the telephone when she heard of her son’s plight.

His story eventually caught the attention of a reporter and spread like wild fire online.  Sympathetic Chinese netizens tweeted: “This story really saddens me,” “Can anyone help him buy tickets online?” and “It’s the honest, ordinary people who have it toughest…when will their suffering end?”

Some big-hearted netizens decided to take matters into their own hands, with one microblogger writing, “Who can contact him?  I want to buy him a plane ticket so that he can immediately fly back to his mother…I would ask other netizens to help according to their ability…” to which another responded “please let me know the account number; I can pitch in twenty yuan [a little over three U.S. dollars].”    

The plight of people like Li Zhuqing (pictured on the right) highlight flaws in the country’s “hukou”, or residential permit, system, a vestige of Mao-era China that essentially forbids hundreds of millions of blue collar migrant workers from bringing their families to their new cities. One popular microblogger, Xu Xiaonian, a business school professor and a former consultant for the World Bank, wrote:

Hundreds of millions of people flowing between the cities and the countryside like migratory birds; this is not normal.  If peasant workers’ families can come live in the cities instead of [the workers] going back home, their family lives would become normal and the lunar new year migration would not have so much pressure.  This requires annulling the hukou policy, lowering housing prices, increasing public facilities and services in the cities and opening up the cities’ healthcare, education and social security services to rural migrants.

Another microblogger simply wrote: “When can we wanderers have a stable home?  I have not returned home for five years…”

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