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China Train Ticket Site Cost Nearly $100 Million, Seems to Be Harassing Programmers, And Might Be Broken Again

Back by popular demand, the space train.

Last fall, we learned that China’s 12306 train ticket sales platform cost 329 million RMB ($52 million), which seemed like sort of a lot given that the thing barely worked. Recently, a weibo whistleblower named Zhou Xiaoyun has alleged that in addition to that, the Railway Ministry has also spent an additional 200 million RMB ($31 million) on a web commerce system from Taiji Computer Corporation. That brings the total cost of the site up to $83 million.

Needless to say, this has raised quite a lot of eyebrows, as has the Ministry’s response to the crop of ‘ticket purchase helper’ plugins that have exploded this year to help users pick up tickets more conveniently. At first, it seemed the Ministry was asking nicely that people stop doing this, but then very quickly the government banned the plugins, and now it seems it may even be employing hired thugs to eliminate some plugins. It has also compared using the helper plugins to “driving through a red light.”

Ni Chao, a Beijing-based software developer who programmed a 12306 plugin of his own and gave it away for free on the web, told the Beijing Youth Daily that he was first called and then visited by “strange men” who advised that he delete his plugin because “it’s not fair to other people.” Ni complied without much resistance, and the men left.

There’s likely no way to prove or confirm the men were hired by the Railway Ministry or any other government organ, but this tactic — hiring plainclothes thugs to intimidate people into doing what you want — is certainly not unheard of in Chinese official circles, and since the Railway Ministry’s 12306 site is the only official train ticket sales platform and has no competitors, it’s hard to imagine why anyone else would want to force Ni and other developers like him into deleting their software.

Looking at the Chinese media, the only good news for 12306 would seem to be that things are going better this year on the technical side. Certainly, there isn’t the kind of media outcry over buggy service that we saw last year. But outcry or no, numerous Tech in Asia commenters have told us they’re still having technical problems with the site, and weibo users are complaining, too. If you have purchased tickets on 12306 this year, you can help us out by voting in this weibo poll to tell us how your experience went.

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