Station police reclaim pickpocket heaven
It is midnight - not a good time to be heading for Guangzhou Railway Station, which has a reputation for crime and corruption. A place where locals do not dare go.
In a recent interview, former Guangzhou vice-mayor Chen Kaizhi said: 'It has become a breeding ground for some very bad people. I believe triads have infiltrated some of our [government] departments. In their collusion, they [triads and officials] use each other,' he told the Guangzhou daily New Evening Express.
Millions of migrants from the interior pass through Guangzhou station each year, searching for work in the sweatshops and on the construction sites of the Pearl River Delta.
According to many Guangzhou residents, it is the large number of waidiren (outsiders) passing through the station that have made it and the surrounding area such a haven for pickpockets, muggers and worse. And because of the heavy traffic, whoever controls ticket sales is sitting on a gold mine.
But the prejudice against the outsiders is just that - prejudice. Most of the migrants who pass through the station are poor, honest and hard-working. They are prepared to do the dirty work shunned by the well-off residents of the mainland's coastal cities. They are in fact the primary victims of the lawlessness at the station.
The situation has become so bad that Guangdong party boss Li Changchun last month ordered a 'rectification campaign'. As a result, Guangdong Railway Bureau, in co-operation with the Guangdong and Guangzhou governments, launched a massive clean-up operation to restore order at the station.
In the past few weeks the campaign has reached fever pitch, with reports of its successes regularly appearing on the front pages of local newspapers.
One policeman at the station said crime had been reduced in the four weeks since the clean-up was launched. The largest problem had been pickpockets and other petty thieves, although a few unlucky victims had had earrings ripped from their ear lobes.
According to statistics published recently in the Nanfang Daily, crime at the station fell 67 per cent in May compared to April; more than 500 criminals were arrested. Robberies and snatch-thefts fell 76 per cent.
But some criminals are now changing their tactics. Deterred by the massive police presence around the station and in the waiting halls, they now travel to neighbouring cities and board trains back to Guangzhou. Once inside the station they loiter on the arrival platforms looking for their targets.
More serious is behind-the-scenes fraud at the station. Before the campaign, a fence was erected 30 metres in front of the station to hem waiting passengers into a small, crowded triangular area. The fence not only presented thieves with a host of excellent opportunities but also provided police a 'privilege area' where they could easily extort 'entry fees' from touts reselling tickets, who said they had to pay police 200 yuan (HK$188) to 300 yuan just to enter the area.
One of the biggest changes wrought by the mop-up operation has been the destruction of the fence. Now passengers can spread out over a wider area, making it harder for pickpockets and other thieves to prey on them.
Measures also have been taken to ensure station staff do not hoard tickets or resell them to scalpers. At each ticket office a computer monitor has been turned outwards so buyers can see for themselves the price and supply of tickets on every route.
On May 26th the Nanfang City Newspaper exposed a police officer who allegedly exacted money from ticket touts. The officer is now being investigated by Guangzhou Railway Public Security Office and the Guangzhou Railway Corporation's party committee. Other reports said about half a dozen police officers have been replaced for similar offences recently.
But there is scepticism over whether police extortion will disappear. Mr Chen said: 'Now that the top leaders have spoken, everybody rushes to do something. But we have to mobilise how many police officers there now? More than 1,000 - how long will this last?'