Taking a stand

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 September, 2003, 12:00am

Last week I took the Beijing metro and, as usual, I headed for the news-stands on the platform. There were none. I felt a terrible loss.

On September 6, the city government said that all 80 vendors had to leave to ease the possible congestion in the event of an emergency evacuation. It sounded fair enough, because the measure was taken for the public's welfare.

But many passengers, like me, were upset. Regular commuters got to rely on the news-stands for their daily papers, giving them something to read until they reached their destination.

Now, commuters have to remember to buy their reading matter before getting to the platform. Those who forget end up being restless during their journey, casting envious glances at other people's papers.

The stands each carried upwards of 300 newspapers, magazines and books. The entrepreneurs manning them worked out most of their distribution deals directly with the publishers. It was well known that the metro vendors got their deliveries first because commuters were among the most loyal readers.

About 400 people made their living sorting, delivering and selling newspapers on metro platforms. Sales averaged 100,000 yuan (HK$94,000) a day, or three million yuan a month. Then, suddenly, they were out of work.

The public was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the plight of the vendors, many of whom had previously been laid off and were facing unemployment for the second time.

One wonders what kind of studies the government conducted before making the decision? Why didn't it ask the public for any input? Why were there no public notices informing us of the changes?

In the drive to improve transparency, the government owes the public an explanation. Even the local media could not get answers from the bureaucrats, save for the fact that the stands could be obstacles during an evacuation.

The Beijing government may have believed that it acted decisively for the good of the public, but people think the action was arbitrary and disrespectful.

On one internet site, one person said that the news-stands were like a public utility and citizens should have been consulted before any changes were made. 'I get my daily news about the community and the world from the newspapers bought on the platform. How could anyone deprive me of this right without even asking how I felt about it?' this person wrote.

Another person said that with proper drills, an orderly evaluation would be possible without evicting the vendors. 'It is the job of the city officials to make better plans to direct the flow in the event of an emergency,' he said.

The only newspapers on the platforms now are the free ones published by the transit authority. Unread in the past, they remain wallflowers.

The metro news-stands were part of my Beijing experience, although I am not a regular commuter. I loved browsing through the colourful displays, spotting new titles among familiar ones and making a transaction, while keeping my ears pricked for the train. And the vendors were helpful whenever I needed help with directions. I miss them.