Shanghai Street View: Scoundrel Scalpers

Scalpers dupe visitor to Century Park

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 just how pervasive scalping is in here 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 the older generation, 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 lively 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 by their colorful name of 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, Xu 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 case 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 essentially are taking advantage of scarce resources to make profits. Some people such as the hospital patients are probably desperate to see a doctor and can’t wait around for hours, 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 he 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 many things, from mundane tasks like renting a car or buying an air ticket to more complex ones like finding a school for their child. Such an approach was necessary 30 years ago, when proper “front door” channels either didn’t exist for such tasks or were nearly impossible to access.

But in today’s China, I’m happy to see that proper channels now exist that make many of these tasks quite easy to do, even for the 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, even when the issue is something as simple as seeing someone jump the queue at the park.

I’m happy to see that such back door use has faded considerably in recent times, especially among younger people who have never known the frustrations of getting ordinary things done in an earlier era. But scalping still remains far too common despite government efforts to stamp it out, and this incident at Century Park, while humorous, does show just how widespread the problem remains.

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