Life for toll evasion? Only in China

Leave it to China to hand down such jaw-dropping sentences like this.

TIME NewsFeed recently reported on a case where a Chinese citizen used military license plates to avoid payment for tolls in the amount of around 3.5 million yuan (equivalent to US$530,000 or so). Shi Jianfeng evaded the tolls while running a gravel transporting business for about eight months (2008 May to 2009 January) and was sentenced to life in prison, plus a fine equivalent to US$303,000. Yes, life in prison for toll evasion.

The public outcry was to be expected, even in a fascist country like China, and surprisingly enough, that got Shi a new trial. One of the factors in his favor was that he only profited the equivalent of US$30,000 (yes, about one-tenth of the amount he was fined) during the toll evasion stint. It’s easy to see how were he to have “honestly” paid his tolls, he probably would not have been able to stay in business.

Followups to this story indicate that the judges involved have been fired (, and that the younger brother was responsible for the fraud and the tolls are going down over time (Canadian Press/Google). However, the older Shi may still face seven years in prison for forgery.

For the uninitiated, here’s a bit about my stance on toll roads. Toll enforcement is one of the few places I approve of video surveillance, as long as the cameras put in place to document and aid in prosecution of toll evasion remain in place for only that reason. Any automated toll collection system quickly becomes unworkable otherwise, and it’s obvious that toll roads are the future as, at least here in the US, gasoline taxes have not provided the needed funding to build new roads, and have even sparked criticism as discriminating in favor of more fuel-efficient (and thus against less fuel-efficient) vehicles. My viewpoint on the latter is clear; I’ll just say I have a bit of an environmentalist leaning, and I frequently swore at SUV drivers during my stint as a courier and you can fill in the blanks.

So no, I don’t oppose toll roads per se; that’s a losing battle. I do oppose charging excessive tolls, and tolling a road without leaving a feasible alternative route that does not require payment of tolls. Most of the toll roads in the Houston area don’t fit either category, though it’s close in the case of the Fort Bend Parkway (which is halfway between US 59 and Texas 288, which diverge by several miles by the time you’re in Fort Bend County). According to a Wikipedia article, it would appear all such roads are tolled in China. So there’s a pretty strong case to forgive Shi’s toll evasion, and for the government to rethink what it’s charging for tolls if they are enough to mean the difference between turning a profit or burning out red pens by the boxful while filling out the balance sheet.

I don’t approve of the evasion of fairly assessed tolls, but the kind of madness that passed for acceptable in China (until this case) just begs for non-compliance.