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The midnight ride of Wang and Li, or how to snip Chinese red tape

In America it's called "passing the buck." In China, the term is tui-wei -- "shifting responsibility onto others." This universal bane of bureaucracies recently cost the Chinese state a pretty penny, according to a front-page article in the People's Daily Sept. 17.

The story began on July 1, when the Shenyang railway bureau and the Fushun mining bureau reached an agreement to withdraw railway personnel from the various oil refineries under the jurisdiction of the mining bureau.

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Until this agreement, aviation kerosene for military use produced by the first, second, and third Fushun oil refineries was sent daily out of the refineries by rail to its military destination. Railway personnel at the refineries counted the cars and transcribed the numbers, an operation requiring the writing down of some 300 numbers.

Once the railway personnel were withdrawn, there was no one to do the counting. The railway bureau asked military representatives stationed in the refineries to do the job. But the military, not having been consulted beforehand, refused.

While the argument continued about who should do the counting, 20,000 tons of aviation kerosene piled up. The revenue lost because of this came to 9.4 million yuan ($6.2 million). Because the oil storage drums were full, the refineries had to change their production plans, causing a further loss of 560, 000 yuan ($372,000).

Because the freight cars at the Daguantun railway station were all occupied, the transport of coal was affected -- another 410,000 yuan ($272,000) lost! To solve the production difficulties caused by this chain of events, the Fushun branch of the People's Bank of China was forced to make a loan of 3 million yuan ($2 million).

On July 8 the Communist Party committee of Fushun City tried to mediate, asking the transport of kerosene be resumed immediately and that for the time being the railway should count the cars as before. The railway bureau caused.

The following day the economic committee of Liaoning Province sent a letter to the economic committee of Fushun City, asking it to try to persuade refinery personnel to transcribe the numbers. The committee disagreed with this proposal , and the problem remained unsolved. At this point the heroes of the story, comrades Wang Ze and Li Damin, two credit department workers at the Fushun branch of the People's Bank of China, stepped in.

"Our hearts were on fire," the two wrote the central disciplinary committee. "We reported the losses suffered and the serious consequences to the Shenyang railway bureau and the logistics department of the Shenyang military district, and asked the leaders of these two units to reach a settlement."

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Both sides replied they would have to wait for their superiors to solve the dispute. And so, on a starlit night, comrades Wang and Li took the train to Peking to report the matter to their own head office, hoping to get through to the state economic commission and the Railways Ministry.

Once again they were rebuffed. "This is a petty matter," they were told. No one wanted to be bothered. At this point, the only recourse left to comrades Wang and Li was to appeal directly to the party's central disciplinary committee. Here at last they were given immediate attention.

The long-blocked transport of aviation kerosene was resumed. Commending the courage and persistence of comrades Wang and Li, the People's Daily said an investigation has been launched to determine who was directly responsible for the affair and what disposition (punishment) should be made.

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