Chinese netizens can be mean, very mean. On May 30, a photo of Prof. Mao Baohua from Beijing Jiaotong University, circulated widely on WeChat. What’s remarkable about the photo is that it was placed in a black frame, the kind often used at funerals. The poor professor was singled out by netizens because he had suggested that Beijing should levy a congestion fee in the fashion of London and Singapore to ease its chronic traffic jams. The new measure was being seriously contemplated by city officials and its passage seemed imminent.
In this high-pitched show of public discontent, one gets a glimpse of the kind of frustration that forms the foundation of many public backlashes against seemingly “progressive” policy initiatives, be it a congestion charge or an oil price floor. Various sources of dissatisfaction gather under the banner of “fairness”, an increasingly prominent theme that features those debates. After years of dizzying growth that substantially expands the “cake” for everyone, it seems that the country has entered a stage where reforms often have to deal with re-allocating that precious cake.
In many such cases, policy makers get their way despite vehement complaints from citizens, giving the impression of a get-the-job-done type government that does not cave in to public bellyaching, a kind of “efficiency” that politicians in a liberal democracy would envy. But as examples will show, the role of a cake-cutter is increasingly challenging for the government to assume, at a time when competing ideas of fairness, each with its own political potency, clash openly in the public sphere.
Beijing is a city notorious for its traffic jams. Over the years, the city’s administrators seem to have exhausted all conceivable ways to loosen the daily clench of its congested roads. They have introduced a lottery system for new plates, limiting monthly addition to the capital’s vehicle fleet to a grudging 20,000. On top of that, they have also imposed a complicated road rationing program based on the last digit of each plate. On any given workday, cars with certain last-digit numbers are prohibited from hitting the road. In special occasions such as the Olympics or the military parade, a more drastic even-odd plate system would kick in, forcing half of the city’s cars off road. But traffic conditions in Beijing continue to deteriorate. According to a recent report ranking China’s most congested cities, Beijing unsurprisingly occupies the top spot.
This is the background of the recent congestion charge proposal that is being floated around by city officials and advisors. Prof. Mao went one step further by putting a concrete figure on the fee: at least 20 RMB daily, earning himself an awkward place under the media spotlight.
The prospect of a congestion charge essentially tears apart the equality imposed by a non-discriminating lottery and rationing system, which opens a can of worms.
The sentiment that surfaces in a big way is “Beijing nativism”, a kind of unabashed prejudice against people from outside Beijing. Locals angrily blame outsiders for sucking up the city’s scarce road resources, and demand prohibitive actions against drivers and cars not from Beijing. China’s social welfare system is still largely hinged upon one’s Hukou (residence registration), a brownish little booklet that determines if you legally belong to a city or not. Public resources, such as education and healthcare, are allocated based on Hukou, erecting a wall between the haves (native residents) and the have-nots (non-natives). Consequently, access to those resources is fiercely guarded by the locals, to the extent that open conflict once broke out between natives and migrants over public school enrollment. An “equal educational right” movement was born out of that clash. And a number of nasty references to non-natives, such as “non-native cunts” and “migrant hecklers”, entered the Chinese vocabulary.
You would think this native-first sense of entitlement is quite backward. Yet policy making is surprisingly accommodating of such sentiments. Beijing’s traffic control measures, underneath the surface of mechanical fairness, have native-first elements deeply embedded in them. Non-natives face a higher threshold to be qualified for car purchase in Beijing. And vehicles registered outside Beijing need to get a permit before entering the city, which needs to be renewed every week.
The congestion charge could completely change the way how road use is to be allocated in Beijing. Instead of arbitrarily ordering part of the fleet off the road, it lets price signals do the job. Those who are willing and able to pay get access. Others have to opt for transportation means other than driving.
A few commentators, such as CCTV news journalist Wang Zhi’an, are visibly buoyant about the fee. They see it as a correction to the longtime unfair arrangement that gives car owners disproportionate access to Beijing’s roads, while squeezing the space for other transportation means such as buses and bikes. Now it’s time for drivers to pay their due. Wang even suggests an almost punitive 50RMB one-way charge, “high enough to turn most of the working-class car owners to subways and buses”. He openly taunts people who complain about the proposed fee, accusing them of harboring “fantasies” about a Beijing where everybody can own cars while not bothered by traffic jams.
This vision of “road justice” is immediately challenged by those who cannot stand the prospect of “roads for the wealthy and the privileged.” In reality, many low-income residents still live within Beijing’s downtown areas, making the fee especially unjust for particular social groups. Even the usually unapologetic Global Times is worried about the class implications of the fee: “Congestion charge would block Beijing’s working class from driving into city center. Policy making should definitely avoid exacerbating social stratification.”
The proposed policy is also dogged by the question of how responsibly the government would dispense with all the money that is to be collected: is it actually going to invest further into public transportation and make road use more equitable among car owners and bus takers? The line of questioning gives birth to more imaginative proposals such as directly distributing the collected money to Beijing’s millions of metro and bus takers, despite the apparent lack of feasibility.
Scholars such as Peking University law professor Deng Feng are critical of the law for a different reason. He believes that congestion charge is an inefficient measure not able to differentiate those causing congestion from the ones suffering more from it, another fairness issue that policy makers have to grapple with. More fundamentally, the legal argument goes that commuting between work and home on public roads is a right derived from the worker’s constitutional right to earn a living. The government has the responsibility to keep at least one transit passage free of charge.
Most people are pissed by the congestion charge not for its intrinsic merit, but its arrogant undertone. As mentioned above, Beijing has been experimenting with all sorts of traffic control measures to no avail. Every introduction of a new measure is interpreted as an indirect acknowledgment of the ineffectiveness of previous policies, which makes the unilateral announcement of new controls almost like a finger in the public’s face. This is the context within which many Chinese policies are judged by their subjects. Debates do not happen in a vacuum, but in a space muddled by a depressing legacy. Frustration piles up as more and more measures are thrown in to solve essentially the same problem. People half-jokingly demand previously paid taxes and fees back to be reimbursed. As Peking University’s Prof. Deng puts it: “the government has never examined ineffective measures that are still in place, nor has it explained for the rationale for the new fee.”
When the source of policy-making is considered incompetent and inherently unjust, nobody, no matter the size of the piece he gets, sees himself getting the fair share of the cake. Even if Beijing city’s leaders may find a way to shove the congestion fee down the throat of its citizens, administrators in other parts of China are already “feeling the burn” of public anger: right before China’s annual college entrance exam in June, thousands of parents in Hubei province protested in front of the provincial education authority against rumored reallocation of college entrance quotas. The cake eaters are getting rebellious.