Now this is a bit Orwellian. Chen Xiujuan, a long-suffering villager from Anda city in chilly Heilongjiang province, recently found herself unable to purchase a train ticket to Beijing, where she had planned to bring her grievances to China’s central government, because she was on a local government blacklist.
An unfortunate history for Chen
How did authorities know? According to a tweet by user @盛世恐龙 on Weibo, China’s Twitter, Chen was a victim of China’s recently implemented policy requiring that train tickets display the real name of their holder. While writers such as Tricia Wang have noted the policy is loosely enforced in practice, in this case it was enough to snag Chen.
What makes Chen so threatening? According to a 2011 article on Boxun.com, a news portal for Chinese diaspora, Chen is a long-suffering farmer from Heilongjiang who has been petitioning China’s government since 2003 with grievances ranging from forced evictions to brutal treatment in a “re-education through labor” camp.
According to a text file tweeted by @盛世恐龙, Chen was planning to petition Beijing authorities again when she sought to buy a train ticket on June 18th. However, the ticket agent denied Chen, showing her a list of “important persons” approximately 20 people long. The ticket agent explained she could lose her job if she sold a ticket to the blacklisted Chen. Then, adding insult to injury, the agent charged Chen 8 RMB (about one US dollar) as a “processing fee.”
If true, this incident represents a perversion–or what some may call clever exploitation–of the real-name policy. As the BBC reported in February, the real-name policy helped lead to the arrest of hundreds of fugitives traveling during China’s Lunar New Year. But it is another thing altogether for a traveler to be denied train access because of concerns they might protest after disembarking.
High tech, low life?
Netizen reaction ranged from anger, to alarm, to simple amazement at the government’s power and ability to execute its policies. @昆山律师朱一业 wrote, “Whoa, technology and society’s ability to control are advancing at the same pace. Terrifying!” @百草晓寒 marveled, “How great is the power of the system? How precise? How subtle? So wretched!”
Many wrote they suspected that the true goal of requiring real names for train passengers had always been “maintaining stability” (维稳), a euphemism for quelling political unrest. @wgyd333 scoffed, “Did you think it was to stop thieves?” @Cn-Mars was enraged, fuming, “This is the characteristic of a police state. They have to put the power of the public inside a cage.”
Others were more resigned. @乐天无极 wrote, “Law is like a blank piece of paper. It’s real [only] when directed at commoners.” @祝和平 avowed, “From now on I’m just going to pay attention to gossip and to pretty girls.”
What it really means
Netizen hand-wringing aside, the identification of Chen was in fact rather low-tech. After all, the ticket agent merely compared her ID card to names on a handwritten list. In fact, according to Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope (which tracks images re-posted by popular users), a teacher at none other than Beijing’s Public Safety University retweeted the image and asked, “Did this really happen?” His query was deleted within a day, but it suggests that some in China’s capital are incredulous, or perhaps annoyed, that such a thing transpired.
Even at its most benign, however, the incident again shows the power of local officials to interfere with citizens’ right to make their grievances known to higher authorities. This is where Weibo, which ironically is also subject to (porous) real-name requirements, shows its power. It has allowed unhappy but isolated locals to traverse great distances in a single tweet. Why sit for hours on an uncomfortable train, only to be ignored in Beijing? China’s netizens–which includes some of her bureaucrats–already have their ear to the Weibo wire.