Shi Jianfeng, a farmer in Henan province was sentenced to life imprisonment recently for evading highway toll up to $550,000. The amount may have been huge, but the case has raised doubts among people about fair legal treatment.
January 14, 2011, BEIJING -- Shi Jianfeng, a farmer in Yuzhou, Henan Province, has been sentenced to life imprisonment for passing his vans off as military vehicles in order to avoid paying more than 3 million yuan in toll fees, dahe.cn, an online news outlet hosted by the Henan Daily group, reported Tuesday.
The report said the owner of two vans, Shi Jianfeng, had purchased fake military vehicle license plates for his vans in addition to fake military uniforms and driving licenses for his drivers in May 2008. Military vehicles are exempt from paying toll fees.
From May 2008 to January 2009, the two vans passed through the Xiatang toll station on the Zhengyao-Yaoshan highway 2,361 times, evading over 3,680,000 yuan (around $550,000) in toll fees.
Shi was sentenced last November for fraud after he gave up on his appeal. He was also fined 2 million yuan (around $300,000) and had his illegal property confiscated.
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.
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 unnerved by the uproar and took the unusual step of holding a news conference this week to explain Mr. Shi's transgressions in detail.
Qu Xinjiu, a law professor at China University of Political Sciences and Law, told the Global Times that the severity of the sentence was due to the fact that he had faked military licenses.
An explanation of the Criminal Law issued in April 2002 by the Supreme Court said that anyone who fakes, changes or steals military licenses in order to avoid paying toll fees would be tried as having committed fraud under Article 266.
The Article stipulates that if the sum in the fraud case is considerable, the person could be sentenced to between 10 years and life in prison.
Qu said that pressure was sometimes put on the legislature to pass laws and regulations that are in the interests of certain government departments.
"Based on the explanation, the court certainly can hand down such a sentence. But whether the explanation itself is reasonable is worth questioning," Qu said.
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.)
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?"
China in 2010 alone added 9000 km of express way and by end of 2010, China owns about 74,000 km of express way, the second longest in the world only lagging a little behind the United States. In China, all the express way as well as another 35,000 km of national trunk highways are tolled. It is said in a report that about 140,000 km of highways are tolled all over the world and China alone contributes to 100,000 km.