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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Life Sentence for Chinese Driver for Evading Tolls

BEIJING — Like most drivers around the world, Shi Jianfeng did not like to roll down his window at toll booths. In fact, Mr. Shi, a farmer from Henan Province in central China, was so averse to toll collectors, he evaded more than $550,000 in road fees during eight months of highway driving, according to the provincial court that convicted him.

But his punishment, life in prison and a $300,000 fine, has provoked a firestorm in the media and among Chinese who have accused the government of imposing a draconian sentence on a man trying to make ends meet in these inflationary days. “Rape and murder will earn you 15 years in prison but evading road charges will get you life,” said one typically cynical posting on Tianya, a popular message board. “Ours is a miraculous country with peculiar laws.”

Chinese legal scholars said it was the first time toll evasion had earned a scofflaw a life sentence.

There seems to be little dispute that Mr. Shi, who had turned to hauling sand and gravel to make a living, behaved egregiously. He purchased two fake military license plates and other documentation that allowed him and his hired drivers to escape paying tolls on his two trucks during 2,300 trips between May 2008 and January 2009. In announcing the verdict this week, The Dahe Daily suggested that the defendant had accepted his guilt because he declined to appeal. He also did not have a lawyer.

But the financial details of the violations for which Mr. Shi was convicted only served to feed suspicions that he had been railroaded. The toll per truck trip averages more than $200 — a high figure, though truck tolls can go by weight.

But many people noted that his profit during those toll-free days amounted to $30,000. If he had truly evaded $556,000 in road fees, as the police charge, he would have lost more than $520,000 from his trucking business.

The local judiciary was so unnerved by the uproar that it took the unusual step of holding a news conference this week to explain Mr. Shi’s transgressions in detail.

The explanation, however, did little to assuage public anger.

In a commentary he wrote Wednesday in the Beijing News, a lawyer, Xu Mingxuan, said that if the official numbers were to be believed, the greater crime was that Chinese drivers were subjected to exorbitant tolls. “Such figures only highlight the people’s suffering,” he wrote.

With private car ownership soaring in China, the episode seems to have stoked mounting aversion to the tolls that have grown along with the nation’s rapidly expanding highway network. The county has been adding tens of thousands of miles to its highway system, and the vast majority operate with user tolls. A World Bank report in 2007 estimated that mile for mile, Chinese toll rates rivaled those in Germany, where incomes are far more extravagant. One of the capital’s more unpopular highway tolls, for example, is the $1.50 charged for access to the 12-mile highway to Beijing’s international airport. (That roadway’s operators are expected to earn eight times their initial investment, according to government figures.)

Popular aversion to such fees has been inflamed by media reports of freeloading government motorcades and inflated tolls that end up in the pockets of local officials. In 2008, the country’s National Audit Office said that motorists had handed over $2.3 billion at illegally erected tollbooths.

In a commentary on Wednesday, The Yangcheng Evening News in Guangzhou suggested that those who set toll rates, not Mr. Shi, should be punished for onerous fees that added to the ever increasing cost of food and other goods. “Fraud is despicable,” the paper wrote, “but who’s scamming whom?”

View the original article here