Chasing runaway bike theft
The Lunar New Year, or chun jie, isn't just a time to let off fireworks and eat dumplings. It's also high season for bicycle thefts on the mainland, as desperate people seek cash to pay for a trip home to see their family. My bicycle disappeared shortly before the holiday began, leaving me the options of buying either a new bike or a second-hand one - almost certainly stolen in a different part of Beijing.
According to the Ministry of Public Security, 4 million bicycles are reported stolen every year on the mainland. That sounds like a lot, even though it's an underestimate: many victims don't bother going to the police. With almost half a billion bikes on the roads, people have just under a one-in-100 chance of theirs being pinched.
That's annoying, but hardly an 'acute threat to social security' - which is how the ministry sees it. At a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, the ministry and five other government agencies announced the start of a five-month campaign to crack down on the bike thieves.
Atop their list of tactics is a real-name registration system. It will compel people to show their identity cards to prove their identities when they buy bikes; and each of the mainland's 470 million bicycles will be issued with its own serial number.
In an unusual show of solidarity, the media have reacted with a mixture of dismay, scepticism and scorn to the prospect of yet another real-name registration scheme to solve a perceived social ill. Over the past 18 months, such schemes have been touted as the panacea to control unruly bloggers, teenage video-game addicts and the endless mobile phone scams.
Some commentators saw the scheme as a sneaky way for the government to collect extra revenue, by charging bike owners for the privilege of registering their bikes. Others wondered how, if number plates failed to deter car thieves, serial numbers would stop bicycle theft. Then there were the sardonic editorials asking where it would all stop. Take real-name registration to its logical extreme, they said, and people will be showing their ID cards when they buy anything.
Bloggers took the mockery a step further. 'I applaud the real-name system for bikes. It will create employment opportunities, and extra income and bonuses, for a number of government departments,' was one caustic comment. Some netizens were more serious, pointing to rising unemployment as the cause of crime: 'Please, those who give orders: work to solve more important problems,' pleaded one.
The media's overwhelmingly negative reaction was in part because they felt safe to speak out about this issue. Newspaper and magazine editors have already been warned that, with the all-important 17th National Communist Party Congress coming up in October, this is a year in which the 'harmonious society' is to be promoted and negative news not reported.
But, as some of the more perceptive netizens noted, there are always underlying reasons for a rise in crime. Just as the public is not convinced that the government is prepared to take real action to stop far more important issues like corruption and illegal land seizures, so no one thinks real-name registration will stop bicycle thefts. A sturdy lock will be more effective than this scheme.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist