By Zhu Shenshen | 2013-1-30 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
FOR many Chinese people, the pleasures of the Spring Festival are dimmed by the scramble for railway tickets as people seek to head back to their hometowns for family reunions.
The Lunar New Year celebration every year triggers the world's biggest human migration, and the Year of the Snake, which begins on February 10, will be no exception.
Hardly surprising then that newspapers and online forums have been filled with hand-wringing about making the process of securing limited rail tickets fairer and more orderly.
The debate, however, won't change much. Instead, people have to come to grips with the twin problems of limited transport capacity during the China's most important festival and the relatively low efficiency of the official railway ticket website.
Stirring the pot this year was the advice from Chinese regulators that Internet firms close third-party online ticket-buying tools that allow computer-savvy people faster access to tickets.
Beginning in early January, Internet firms such as Qihoo 360, Kingsoft and Sougou launched browser add-ons to help users purchase tickets with third-party tools that make using the 12306 website run by the Ministry of Railways more convenient and user-friendly.
The plug-ins added pressure to the already busy 12306 server, handicapping people who weren't savvy enough to use them, the ministry said.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which regulates the Chinese IT industry, talked to the websites, indicating a shutdown of the tools.
The websites, however, chose to continue to provide the services.
"If it is unfair, then everything is unfair," Kaifu Lee, Innovation Works founder and former Google China president, said on his Weibo microblog.
"By the same reasoning, people shouldn't be allowed to buy air tickets through Qunar (a Chinese version of Expedia), learn English through software or drive with a navigation device."
Lee has 26 million followers on Weibo, and his posting was forwarded to others more than 42,000 times since it surfaced on January 20.
Qihoo 360 said it had helped 5 million users purchase tickets with its tool, which has a user-friendly interface and puts little pressure on the 12306 website because people would visit 12306 if not using these tools.
The ministry should improve its website and balance online and offline ticket resources to keep the whole system fair, Lee added.
It takes a user 13 steps to complete a ticket purchase on 12306, which is unnecessarily complicated, experts said.
"The fairest way is to let all people get tickets" is one of the most commonly heard statements in the current debate.
It's true that a "digital gap" exists between white-collar workers and somewhat less educated migrant ticket-seekers. That forces the large migrant population to queue for hours in winter cold at railway stations.
Most migrant workers who desperately want to return home after a year of hard work don't know how to book tickets online. They just go to railway stations to try their luck.
But some tickets for popular routes are sold out within minutes, according to media reports.
One said that if online buying tools were shut down, migrants would have the same chance as other people to buy tickets.
The railway ministry made no comment on the debate, but it has posted ticket information on its website every day to tell people what seats are available and which are in "limited supply."
In my opinion, the online tool providers are more interested in expanding market share than in actually helping people.
Qihoo 360, Kingsoft and Sougou all have Internet browser businesses. The ticket mania presents an opportunity for them to attract more users and lift their profiles.
Even with the tools, it's not easy for people to purchase railway tickets during the Spring Festival period.