End to cheap charges pushes callers' buttons

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 June, 2005, 12:00am

Hundreds of China Unicom subscribers protested outside the telecommunication firm's office in Shenzhen yesterday after it announced it was cancelling a discounted long-distance call service.

About 300 people gathered outside the Unicom office in Zhenhua Road for a second day demanding that the company reverse its decision. The protesters briefly clashed with security guards and police, and at least three claimed to have been beaten.

The protests came after China Unicom announced last week that it was cancelling a special monthly mobile phone package that gave subscribers unlimited long-distance calls within the mainland for as little as 600 yuan a month.

The package was launched three years ago as part of the company's aggressive promotional campaign to attract subscribers in Shenzhen.

Customers had to pay 3,000 yuan to open an account, but the package was so popular that all available numbers, estimated at about 20,000, were snapped up before the promotion ended.

Many of the accounts were re-sold on the second-hand market for more than 10,000 yuan each, according to Wang Lin , who bought 15 accounts to set up a private long-distance call company.

'I sold all my assets and invested them in these accounts. Now the company has suddenly decided to cancel the service. My money will go down the drain,' the native of Hunan province said.

More than 90 per cent of Shenzhen's residents are migrants from other parts of China.

Most left their families behind for better career prospects in this booming border city and for many the telephone is the only means of communicating with their families.

'Both my son and my parents are in Hunan. I only go home once every year, but I call them every night to check if they are alright. But I wouldn't be able to afford this if I had to pay the normal fee,' said a man who refused to be named.

China Unicom said the decision to stop the services was made after the mainland's telecommunication regulatory body asked it to adjust fees.

'The authorities have asked us to revise the subscription fees to ensure a healthy market. We therefore had to make a change to the special package,' read a China Unicom notice.

Subscribers now have to pay 0.2 yuan per minute for long-distance calls within the mainland. China Unicom said it would offer a 60 per cent discount to current users until the end of this year.

But the protesters said they would not accept the offer. Delegates from both side met yesterday to negotiate a compromise.