Shi Jianfeng, a truck driver from Yuzhou, Henan province, was released from what would have been life imprisonment for fraud last Sunday. His crime: evading 3.68 million yuan in highway tolls. The time frame: nine months.
The ruling sparked an outcry across the country against the court for its excessive punishment, against the Ministry of Transportation for its excessive tolls and against the police for their poor supervision of privileged vehicles – a hole Shi took advantage of when he mounted military plates.
Weng Mengyong, the national vice minister of transportation, said at a press conference Tuesday that current road tolls are “reasonable.”
“Without decades’ worth of income from tolls, we wouldn’t have been able to complete the extraordinary highway we have today,” he said.
At the press conference, the Higher People’s Court of Henan Province announced that it had ordered a retrial, citing the lower court’s failure to investigate other involved parties.
Toll Evasion no Crime
Shi Jianfeng, a 43-year-old farmer, made 2,361 trips along the Zhengzhou-Yaoshan highway between May 2008 and January 2009.
Lugging his truckloads of sand should have cost him 2.68 million yuan in road tolls. It did not, because his cars were bearing military plates: the Ministry of Transportation exempts military vehicles from complying with national road tolls.
For his “fraud,” Shi was fined 2 million yuan. His total earnings – 20,000 yuan in nine months – were garnished by the court last Friday.
But the day after sentencing, Shi Junfeng, his younger brother, appeared at the court stating that he was the truck’s manager and that the licenses were purchased from a local division of the People’s Armed Police and therefore not fake.
Shi Junfeng produced a one-year contract signed by Zhang Xintian and Li Jinliang, the two armed police officers carrying military identity cards who sold him the plates.
According to the contract, the division allowed four of Shi Junfeng’s trucks to carry military plates, CCTV reported on Monday. Shi Junfeng, in turn, would make yearly payments of 1.2 million yuan to the division in exchange for the privilege of driving specified stretches of highway under military plates.
“The illegal use of official signs, such as armed police vehicle plates, only carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison,” said Chang Yanbo, an attorney at law from Henan Bangji Law Firm.
While the government does criminalize tax evasion, with a maximum prison sentence of seven years, no legislation has criminalized toll evasion, he said. Considering the extent of social harm, the former is obviously far more severe than the latter. Tax evasion is also only criminalized when someone fails to pay after being caught, he said.
“Toll evasion, no matter how big the sum, is far from meriting a life sentence,” Chang said.
If the stamp on that contract proves authentic, then the case should be about how the armed police illegally provided a license swap – not toll evasion, he said.
No Vehicle Supervision
Ordinary trucks are required to pay tolls of 0.45 yuan per kilometer, according to the chart published on the website of the Henan Highway Department.
But a special rate exists for overweight trucks. A truck carrying a full load of sand, slag or rock may be billed 15 times as much as an empty truck, turning a 100-kilometer trip on the Henan highway into a bank-breaking 2,700-yuan excursion.
“Our rates are in line with the average rates nationwide. But many truck managers are paying off military units to borrow plates and get around this,” Shi Yinfeng, an officer from the department, said.
The toll system has created a black market for forged licenses for all manner of privileged vehicles. Military plates are preferred, as the State Council has kept them exempt from road tolls and parking fees since 1997.
Since 2000, they have also been immune to fines for traffic violations, following a joint decision by the People’s Liberation Army’s Headquarters of the General Staff and the General Political Department.
These privileges have created an incentive for rampant abuse: in border towns, military plates are used to provide cover for drug and human traffickers.
In June 2009, a joint campaign between the law enforcement departments in Guangdong and Zhejiang and Beijing broke up six groups that reportedly produced and sold more than 5,000 fake military plates to customers in more than 20 provinces.
Mo Jihong, a constitutional professor at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the problem stems from the military’s secrecy and loose management of its vehicles.
“Army officers should not be using its vehicles for their personal use. Yet they are lending them to relatives and renting the plates. The army should be more open about which vehicles it controls so local supervision can spot frauds,” he said.
But for many in the public, the real source of outrage is the incredible privilege the government has granted to military vehicles.
“In Hong Kong, government officials have to suffer through tolls and traffic jams just like everyone else. In Japan and Korea, even ministry-level officials take the subway or bus to work,” Mo said.
“Think about this: 2,361 trips over nine months racked up 3.7 million yuan in tolls in a second-tier city in Henan Province,” said Zhang Wenjie, researcher from Logistic Management School of Beijing Transportation University.
“These sky-high toll fees are obviously one of the main reasons ordinary truck drivers, who earn a living by driving these roads, are seeking military plates,” he said.
“If Shi only earned his stated profit of 200,000 yuan but had to pay 3.7 million yuan in tolls, how would he be able to run a shipping business?” said Zhang
A report published by the World Bank in 2009 said that 100,000 of the world’s 140,000 kilometers of highways are located in China, and these roads require tolls far in excess of what drivers pay even in developed nations.
Zhang said the logistics industry is booming, and in the coming decade it may account for the top 10 percent of economic growth.
“But the ill management and high costs, including oil prices and tolls, have been eroding the growth of our logistics sector. Eventually it may be a barrier to the development of all business,” he said.
In the meantime, drivers across the country are eagerly awaiting Shi’s retrial to learn whether toll reform will ever come.