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Scalping trade thrives on ‘back door’ obsession
By Doug Young

A scalping story that saw a person scammed after buying an invalid ticket to Century Park brought a smile to my face, partly because the money involved was quite small and also because the tale itself was rather ridiculous. But my smile was quickly followed by some eye rolling and exasperation, as the story once again showed how pervasive scalping is in Shanghai and throughout China.

Reasons for buying tickets and other items from scalpers vary widely, but this particular case also highlighted another phenomenon that perplexes me and many others here in China. That phenomenon is the “back door” mentality, which sees many Chinese, especially from older generations, always looking for short-cuts to do even the most common things like buying a park ticket.

After all, the mentality goes, why should someone enter through the “front door” when they can pull a few strings and get in through an unofficial channel?

The scalper scene in China is certainly nothing new, and one of my most vivid memories of life here in the 1980s was the abundance of black market money changers, and the familiar words “change money” they would whisper in my direction whenever I walked by. These days, those black marketeers, known as huang niu, or “yellow cows” in Chinese, have largely abandoned their earlier trade in favor of greener fields in areas like ticket scalping.

Such cows were hard at work outside Century Park in Pudong, where they snared an unsuspecting victim surnamed Xu one recent day. It seems that Xu couldn’t be bothered to wait in line with everyone else to buy a park ticket, and instead turned to a scalper to reduce his waiting time. The ticket mark-up was quite high — 30 percent to be precise. But since the normal price was only 10 yuan (US$1.53), Xu apparently figured he could cough up the extra 3 yuan to open his own back door into Century Park.

But the scalpers ultimately made an even bigger profit, and other park-goers who properly waited in line got the last laugh, since Xu quickly discovered the ticket he had purchased was expired and worthless.

Frankly speaking, I’m not ever sure why this particular story made it into the news, since the amount of money involved was quite small and this kind of scalping and fraud are common throughout the city.

A far more high profile story has been the situation at hospitals, following an undercover CCTV investigation that highlighted the common practice of scalpers who register to see specialist doctors, and then sell their places in line at hugely inflated prices to desperate patients.

As I’ve said above, people have many reasons to buy from scalpers, who are taking advantage of scarce resources to make profits. Some people such as hospital patients are probably desperate to see a doctor and can’t wait, or may not be able to arrange a visit because all the tickets have been issued for the day. Others like the man at Century Park simply don’t want to wait in line like everyone else, and are willing to pay a premium to cut the queue.

I really don’t mind when the latter types get duped, and perhaps Xu was so forthcoming about his story because he realized just how foolish his actions were. But such actions really do reflect the “back door” mentality, which needs to disappear in places like Shanghai if it ever wants to be taken seriously as a truly modern and global metropolis on par with places like Tokyo, London and New York.

I’m often amazed at how many people still use such back doors to accomplish things, from mundane tasks like renting a car or buying an air ticket to more complex ones like finding a school for their child.

In today’s China, I’m happy to see that proper channels now exist that make many of these tasks quite easy to do for most ordinary people. The continued use of back doors in such an environment only breeds resentment from others who lack such access, and adds to a general feeling of inequality and lack of fairness.

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