‘Technological cheating’ shadows online ticket sales for Spring Festival rush

January 22, 2013Jing GaoNo Comments, , , , ,

As the Spring Festival travel season, also known as the largest annual human migration in the world, approaches, the vexing and taxing battle for a train ticket home starts. This year, a new problem occurs: tech-savvy Chinese ticket buyers have been using plug-ins, add-ons and other software applications, which causes a surge in traffic that overwhelms 12306.cn, Railway Ministry’s official ticket-booking website.

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The plug-ins, provided by a number of Chinese software companies such as Kingsoft, 360 and Sogou, can be installed onto web browsers to create a fully automated process that combines refreshing the page and placing the order and replaces the manual process. It is said that since the travel season started, the website has been seeing as many as 1.5 billion hits per day, a lot of which were contributed by these apps.

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“Use 360 browser to snatch train tickets. Has successfully helped three million people buy train tickets,” the ad reads

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Queuing in the virtual world

Some argue that the unfair advantage given to plug-in users makes them effectively ‘queue-jumpers’ in the digital world.

In response, the Ministry of Railways first tried to talk the domestic software companies out of providing such apps. On January 18, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the real boss of China’s web giants, even stepped in and ordered them to put an end to the situation.

But the diktats were scoffed at by both news media and ordinary Chinese. In a commentary published Sunday, state-run Xinhua New Agency criticizes the Railways Ministry for having spent 300-million yuan (48.2 million USD) on a website that cannot even withstand the impact of a small plug-in. “Instead of debugging, it is busy with talks and orders,” “Don’t blame others for being too smart just because you are too stupid,” it says.
In an online survey launched by 360, a Chinese web browser company, 59 percent of the 4,300 plus respondents voted that there should be a ticket-buying plug-in, as it proves a useful tool, and another 45.5 percent said it is a means to an end, and that no one would want to use the plug-in if buying a ticket were easy.
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Previously, Chinese who need to travel home for family reunion during the Chinese New Year had no choice but to brave all elements and stand in endless lines in front of ticket booths, but since the Ministry of Railways rolled out 12306.cn in January 2012, the jostle has partly moved online.But contrary to Railway Ministry’s intent for it to be popular, complaints swell. During the last Spring Festival rush, it kept breaking down. Many got an error message after shelling out money.

There are also worries that unless train tickets are properly allocated, the digital divide between the haves and have-nots makes it extremely hard for over 200 million rural migrants, who have very limited or no access to the Internet, and much less advanced technologies, to secure a ticket.
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Lining up in front of a ticket office seems to be the only option for many under-educated and elderly rural migrants.
In the southern city of Foshan, where many rural migrants either don’t know how to purchase tickets online, or are too busy working during the day to wait in front of the computer, a young married couple bought tickets at the website on their behalf and charged 10 yuan (1.6 USD) for each ticket. The police arrested the couple as ‘scalpers’ and held them in custody until after the Chinese New Year.
The action met near-unanimous biting criticism from Chinese net users, who share the frustration of ticket-buying and see nothing wrong with making so little from doing so much.
Zhang Quanling, a television journalist with 6.1 million followers, wrote on Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter,
“Am helping my aunt buy a train ticket. The phone service and 12306 website are driving me crazy. Busy line; no ticket; busy line…Downloaded software; registered; page not found; no ticket; transaction failed…When the married couple in Foshan who charged 10 yuan for booking tickets for rural migrants are released from the detention center, I have got to ask them how to successfully book tickets online. I’ll pay you 10 bucks as tutorial fee. Then they can’t possibly call you scalpers, can they?”
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The tweet has so far received 20,868 shares and 8,647 comments.

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