Thursday, August 28, 2008


There were mixed signals on ticket-touting (or 'scalping', as our American friends say) during these Olympics.

All official announcements seemed to maintain that it was heavily outlawed. And there was at least a 'mini-crackdown' during the first week of the Games, with many touts (either 221 of them, or 276, or..... depending on which of the local media reports you follow) - including at least a small number of foreigners - arrested for the activity. I was rather shocked to learn that one of my Chinese acquaintances (a young woman, white-collar, eminently respectable) had served a 14-day period of detention for circulating by e-mail a list of tickets she and a friend had available.

However, around most of the venues, touts - both Chinese and foreign - were operating with apparent impunity, often right under the noses of the police or security guards. Business was particularly brisk out at Wukesong, where the basketball and baseball were big draws (but there were still lots of empty seats). Also, I gather, at the boxing (where it was difficult to give the tickets away, the Chinese being strangely uninterested in the sport, despite their common predilection for violent spectacle). However, my journalist friends tell me that there were quite a few around the Olympic Green as well (including a couple of Liverpudlian 'scallies' who are notorious for buying and selling tickets at every Olympic Games).

I was also told - though rather too late on in proceedings for it to have been of any practical use to me - that a big foreign sports bar far out on the east side of town had a 'resident' Chinese tout who would turn up at 8pm or 9pm each night with a big stack of next-day tickets - the majority of them on offer at cost price. (This is actually rather more than touts usually charge here. Vast blocks of tickets for any major public event are given away as corporate freebies or distributed to CCP cadres and government offices. The majority of these are unwanted, unused, and eventually filter their way down to the streets. They may have passed through several sets of hands before they make it to a piao fanzi, but as often as not they will have been handed on at each stage FREE - as a favour to friends, family, or guanxi ['connections'] - or at only very nominal cost. So, the guy trying to flog you a ticket on the sidewalk has usually paid little or nothing for it himself, and is quite grateful to make any reasonable return at all. He knows that most events are nowhere near sold out; that often, no matter what the official 'sold out' notices say, there will still be a few tickets available from the box office; so he's not nearly so greedy as his Western counterpart. You can usually pick up a ticket for something from a Chinese scalper at a substantial discount on the cover price.)

It seemed that there were some places where it was dangerous to ply the trade, but others where the police were quite happy to turn a blind eye. Some people speculated that there might even be - at least unofficially - a system of "approved zones", rather akin to the infamous "protest zones" established in some of the city's public areas. "This is a designated illegal activity zone. If you want to do anything illegal, please keep within the boundaries marked by the tape. The PSB thanks you for your cooperation. And by the way, my brother-in-law would like two tickets for the taekwondo on Saturday. Thanks very much."

This is China. It might be so.

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