Life as a Train Ticket Scalper

By Chen Yong
Published: 2011-01-21

Nation, Page 10
Issue 503, Jan 17, 2010
Translated by Guo Wei
Original Article:

As darkness fell, the crowd didn't fall away, but more and more people joined them. This was the situation in the square of Beijing's main railway station; central to China's floating population.

On the evening of January 13, the fifth day of the 2011 Spring Festival transport rush, or chunyun, at Beijing railway station, a man with a crew-cut wearing a red and black jacket came over and asked, "Want tickets? Where to? Shenyang? Harbin? I have tickets to sell."

This is a question often heard during the Spring Festival transport rush.

According to the National Development and Reform Committee and the Ministry of Railways, during the 2011 Spring Festival transport rush (from January 19 to February 27), there will be 2.85 billion passenger journeys made in China, up 11.6 percent from last year. 230 million will travel using the nation's railways, up 12.5 percent and up 25.54 million from last year, setting a new record.

Survival Code

"Every place has its own survival code; otherwise, there would be chaos." Jiang Kai (not his real name) from the Northeast used to work as a ticket scalper and is currently the head of a Zhejiang trading company. He occasionally still scalps tickets.

In 2001, Jiang Kai followed some of his fellow villagers to Beijing where he worked as a vendor, laborer, and scalper, one after another. He has finally found a real job. To use his words, "It hasn't been easy."

Like other heads of trading companies, Jang Kai rents a building near the railway station, which he uses as a home and a warehouse. Other than to pick up goods, he stays clear of the railway station in order to avoid arousing suspicion.

Jiang Kai has been a part of the Beijing railway community for years. Recalling his days as a scalper, Jiang tells us that he was forced into it by circumstances, that he had no choice but to run around an impossibly complex railway station in the rain and cold peddling tickets.

An insider who has worked for many years at the train station in express transport says, if you want to sell tickets at the Beijing and Beijing West Railway Stations, aside from keeping your eyes and ears open, you will need to know the underground network of people who live and work in the railway station. This cast of characters includes other scalpers, couriers, thieves, beggars and more. They all know each other, and they each have their own territory. Famous, long-established gangs at Beijing Railway station include the "Northwest Wolves" and the "Northeast Pack."

The source mentioned above claims that most scalpers at the Beijing Railway Station are from Anhui Province and the northeast. But at Beijing West, most scalpers come from the south. People from different provinces occasionally clash and sometimes violently, but their fights are usually stopped by the station staff or gang leaders.

The source also said that if you want to join the railway station community you must recognize the different gangs and determine the relationship between the gangs and the station. You must also become familiar with the appearance and contact information of police and staff at the station. This is the only way to survive.

Recently, there have been rumors of a railway station "survival code handbook", which contains the contact information of the railway station staff and officers, and also includes a map of the various gangs' territories. The map would include, for example, which gang controls the main hall and which is in charge of the square.

"If you want to be scalper, you must be very discreet, and know how to get and sell tickets," Jiang Kai said. When he first started scalping, because he did not understand the code, he was robbed and beaten by two southerners and was too scared to alert the police.

Jiang knows scalping is illegal, and although the punishment is rarely severe, as a precaution, he only does business with his acquaintances. He normally answers his cell phone, "you dialed the wrong number." He thinks that being a scalper is a tough job that depends on physical strength and mental capacity, but, he tells us, it's a lot better than selling poisoned milk powder.

Laws, and How Scalpers Get Around Them

Jiang Kai says scalpers are brought into the business by fellow villagers. In the past, the process was streamlined from purchasing tickets to illegally reselling them. Scalpers were given specific roles and responsibilities depending on where they are from.

One experienced scalper claims that since the 1990s, the business has changed. Originally, tickets were procured from ticket windows. Deals were made in front of the ticket office, and in the glory days, they even made deals with the police. But after crackdowns on scalping increased, the number of scalpers gradually fell and those who remained went underground. "Now normally they wait for people who are attempting to return tickets and purchase the tickets from them, or repeatedly stand in line to buy tickets, or doctor discarded tickets to make fakes."

The above source said that since the punishment for scalping is not severe and the profit is substantial, scalping has continued even in face of containment measures enacted by the railway department. These measures have included a telephone booking service for tickets sold at some stations during the Spring Festival period. To get around this measure, some scalpers have purchased an automatic dialing-machine costing between 200 and 300 yuan. The machine redials the ticket booking number and inputs different ID numbers. The internet has also become a new sales venue for scalpers.

The source said that it's impossible for a scalper to operate without inside connections. Generally they partner with a station staff member, or get tickets from other sources like non-train station ticket sale agents.

"The station enacted a new measure which sold tickets based on ID numbers, so we simply bought ID numbers." Jiang Kai said. Scalpers can always find a way to deal with new polices such as purchasing ID numbers from thieves.

Jiang Kai's claims were echoed by a train station police officer. The officer stated that many scalpers are becoming professionals, and it is getting harder to crack down on them. Since the detainment system was abolished, law enforcers can only do their best to drive scalpers away.

The officer added that at present, there is no evidence confirming the connections between the scalpers and the station staff, but that the connections exist. Some ticket offices even collude with scalpers by hoarding tickets, which is one of the main difficulties facing ordinary ticket buyers.

As for the new "weapon" being used by scalpers, a station staff member admitted to the EO that automatic dialing machines are being used, but considering the costs, most scalpers can only purchase are 2 or 3 machines, and even if all their machines are operating in unison, it is not guaranteed that they will be successful.

The staff member also said that although they cannot stop scalpers from using the automatic dialing-machines, they can add a test code into their booking system. The person who wants to book tickets via telephone must first input the code in order to carry on with the booking process.

Tickets reserved for various ministries are one of the main reasons that the ticket supplies are tight. "If a ministry wanted tickets, would you have the guts to say no? To the General Office of the State Council? To the General Office of the CCCPC? To political departments? To the PLA?" said a source who has worked with the railway department for years. Before the Spring Festival transport rush, the ministry of railways reserved the tickets in various ways. Just this year, in order to improve relations with the media, the ministry gave 10,000 sleeper tickets to big media firms in Beijing.

High Profits

Jiang Kai tells us that scalpers are only interested in the money. According to scalper slang, if they raise ticket prices by 30 or 50 yuan, it counts as "scalping", but they can make ten times as much by making fake tickets or selling tickets in bulk.

"A day's worth of income from "scalping" is only a couple hundred yuan, and the main profit will go to suppliers." Jiang Kai said. From a year of "scalping", scalpers could only earn 150,000 yuan, but suppliers and fake tickets makers can earn more than 1 million yuan in a year.

A man who has been involved in the manufacturing of fake tickets for many years said that early on, the fake ticket business was run by small organizations and was relatively small in scale.

He said that the cost of making fake tickets is relatively low. Each ticket costs a couple of pennies, and then they sell the tickets through scalpers. They can earn millions of yuan during the peak transport period.

A source from the Beijing Railway Station Police Bureau claims that to crack down on scalpers, they will strengthen control of the surrounding area and use video surveillance, information networks, and public reports to arrest scalpers.

In fact, police have been cracking down on ticket scalpers since the early 90s. A long-term enforcer of anti-scalping policies says that every time the police attempt to "crackdown" on scalping, they succeed, but scalpers always come back and resume business as usual. Because of the lure of money, Henan Province and Beijing have become the most active regions for ticket scalpers.

He thinks that the main reason the scalpers return after crackdowns is that the policies for disciplining scalpers is ambiguous and the laws in place are weak. Additionally, over the past few years, scalpers have revamped their methods. 

The official also said, in some situations, law-enforcement officers may be involved with the gangs who run ticket rackets. Frequently, when crackdowns on scalpers begin, gangs are tipped off and manage to evade capture.

January 13, an old man took the two hours subway journey from Tongzhou to buy a train ticket to Hohhot, when he arrived at the ticket window he found that all the tickets were sold out. He had already made the journey three times to buy a single ticket. A scalper asked him if he would like to buy a ticket to Hohhot for the extra price of only 30 yuan. The old man considered it, and then rejected the proposition. He said that he would try his luck tomorrow.

This article was edited by Rose Scobie and Ruoji Tang