Newspapers back on Beijing subways

Beijing Times
January 22, 2010

Earlier this month, Beijing's subway operating company announced that it would no longer allow newspapers to be sold inside subway stations. Increasing passenger volume, it said, had made in-station news-stands a safety risk.

However, the Beijing Daily Messenger, which has a close relationship with the subway, would still be permitted to continue its free distribution inside the stations. Naturally, Beijing's other papers were furious at this decision, and the general public was not too thrilled to find its reading choices suddenly curtailed.

After nearly two weeks of criticism, the Beijing Subway announced that it was amending its order. On Thursday, a press spokesperson announced three changes it would be making to the way it currently handles newspaper distribution:

  1. Where space permits, erect newsstands outside the entrance to stations;
  2. Following a safety evaluation, standardized newspaper sales and other commercial services may be permitted in stations on new lines;
  3. Free distribution of the Beijing Daily Messenger will be moved from the stations themselves to ground level.

The Beijing Times recorded a conversation with Jia Peng, the subway's spokesperson:

Reporter: How are we to understand "new lines"?
Jia Peng: Lines 1 and 2 of the Beijing Subway were constructed with preparedness in mind. The platforms and halls are relatively narrow. So "new lines" should be understood as referring to all lines except for lines 1 and 2.

Reporter: Order 213 did not unconditionally bar in-station stalls. It barred the "unauthorized" installation of stalls. What does "unauthorized" mean here? After undergoing an evaluation, will it be the subway company that authorizes commercial services, or the government?
Jia Peng: The subway operating company is only responsible for the safe operation of the subway. The government must approve any commercial services within the stations.

Reporter: Which government department?
Jia Peng: That has not been decided yet, but existing regulations mean that the safety supervision, transportation, and public security departments will definitely be involved.

Reporter: Distribution channels form a major focus of the subway operator's subsidiary cultural company. Has it seen any major effect from this ban?
Jia Peng: As I understand it, the cultural company enjoys a favorable relationship with a number of media organizations. The subway's cultural company will be responsible for distribution of the Beijing Daily Messenger once it moves above-ground.

In its lead editorial on the subject, The Beijing News hailed the changes as remedying an "absurd" situation and "correcting the monopolistic actions of the Beijing Daily Messenger."

However, the paper also voiced doubts about the actual implementation of the new rules:

First, people are not inattentive to "safety." Traffic on the Beijing Subway is high volume, Lines 1 and 2 are relatively old and their facilities comparatively rudimentary, so the effect of lax management, even if there's nothing to prove that selling newspapers is a definite safety risk, is something that people can understand. What people are suspicious about is the lazy governance that applies a single rule to all lines out of "safety" concerns. Good governance from a municipal government does not issue prescriptions that so casually brush aside the will of the people, violate laws and regulations, the public's reading habits, cultural communication, and economic fairness. How was such a decision released? Without any consultation of public opinion or review of the law, why was it promulgated so hastily and implemented with such force?

And in the face of so many questions from the public, why did the government hold its ground so long? There was even escalation in the form of the dismantling of newsstands on Line 4. Silence is the worst strategy to take against questions from the public. We are now back on track, but at an enormous cost to society. In light of this, will the government now face future questions from the public with frank and reasonable understanding, and be willing to admit its errors?

Thirdly, a number of things are still unclear about the three measures the government will adopt to satisfy subway riders' newspaper-reading needs. For example, does "recently opened subways" mean all of those except for Lines 1 and 2? What will the standard be for the "safety evaluation"? Will it be overly harsh, symbolically allowing newsstands in just a few stations so no one has a basis to complain they did not follow through? Or will they truly listen to the questions from the public and the media and make actual changes? In a few places the measures mention limiting language like "conditionally." What does "conditionally" mean, and what are its logical basis and implications?

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