A few days ago, a netizen posted a message on an Internet BBS complaining about his frustrating experience of seeking help after he got a flat tyre after driving over an uncovered manhole on a road in Xi'an.
The Shanghai motorist was driving into the northwestern city at midnight on October 1 when his car hit an uncovered manhole in the middle of the road. To get help with his flat tyre as well as to remind the competent authorities of the hidden danger, the man called the police, the municipal government office, the municipal public utility department and the tap-water plant. He made 22 calls within three hours while waiting in chilly drizzle. The public utility department claimed they had sent people over to set a warning sign by the manhole. The water plant sent a worker to the scene, who inspected the manhole briefly and then told the Shanghai man "the manhole belongs to the telecommunications company" and left.
Nobody offered help to the poor motorist. A passing taxi driver told the Shanghai man to swallow it because "missing a manhole cover is too common a thing in Xi'an."
He was right. Missing manhole covers is not only common in the capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province but in all cities across the country as well.
Thieves took the cast iron covers and sold them to waste recovery stations. The crime takes place in all Chinese cities. Last year, 24,000 manhole covers were stolen in Beijing. Shanghai reports the loss of 12 manhole covers on average each day.
Missing manhole covers are particularly dangerous. Every year there are reports of children's death and motor vehicle accidents because of the road traps.
The theft of public facilities has been a chronic headache for many years but there seems to be no effective solution to the problem. Most of the thieves are vagrants from rural areas, who rely on it for a means of living. It happens so often that as a manhole cover is replaced, it is stolen the next day.
Because of the small value of the iron cover, punishment for the theft is usually light, and not enough to deter offenders.
An easy solution everybody can think of is forbidding waste recovery stations from purchasing manhole covers. The idea is not new. Such prohibitive regulations were promulgated even as early as more than 20 years ago. All waste recovery stations know clearly what they are not allowed to buy but they still buy them.
And waste recovery, as a "special industry," has been under surveillance by the police. Why are the collectors so bold as to defy State laws?
A major reason is the greatly expanded number of waste recovery stations.
Waste recovery has become a lucrative business in recent years as waste materials dumped by a better-off urban population contain more and more valuable objects. That has given rise to many new waste recovery stations, which are not registered. The government abandoned the practice of registering newly set-up stations during the reform of urban administration. That makes it difficult for the police to monitor the industry.
However, it should not become an excuse for lax monitoring.
Scrap iron ends up in iron plants. The number of iron plants is much less than that of waste recovery units. Therefore it is not difficult for the police or other competent authorities to stop dealers in manhole covers, which are easily recognizable even in broken pieces, at iron plants. The key to the problem still lies in the attitude of the executors of the law.
Another important thing necessary is a change in the judgement of the nature of manhole cover theft. Since missing manhole covers usually lead to loss of human lives, theft and dealing in the object should be regarded as a serious offence, for example, "crime of endangering public safety," and severely punished. The laws and regulations concerned should be revised.
(China Daily 12/21/2005 page4)