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Consistency in policies

China Daily

A law prohibits the collection of a fee, but the levy continues in reality. It sounds absurd, at least.

China's Highway Law, however, is faced with just such an embarrassment.

Amended in 1999, the law says that the State shall collect "tax" as revenues to maintain the road. It means the traditional road maintenance fee should have come to an end.

But seven years after the amendment, the charges continue, damaging the new law's authority.

The public has pointed fingers at the transportation departments, accusing them of violating the law.

The transportation authorities, on the other hand, say they are wronged and legally justified to continue charging the fee.

We must examine the original legal article to ferret out what has gone wrong. The 36th article of the amended Highway Law indeed says the State should resort to taxation for road maintenance. But it continues to stipulate that it is up to the State Council to make concrete implementation procedures.

The State Council said in a 2002 document that the relevant departments shall carry out their work in accordance with "existing regulations."

What exists is a 1991 regulation legalizing the collection of road maintenance fees.

It is clear that the concerned parties are set in a legal trap. Every party seems to be justified in its stance, but the stances contradict each other.

A solution to the problem lies in the implementation of the anticipated fuel tax, which will cover existing road maintenance costs.

The tax would fill the legal vacuum left by the amended Highway Law and bridge the gap between the public and the transportation departments.

But the tax is a technical headache. It has been proposed for years and everyone agrees it should be made, but no consensus has been reached on how it should be carried out.

One obstacle is that farmers will lose out if such a tax is put in place. They do not go on the highway often and cannot enjoy the benefit of such a tax-for-fee reform. Meanwhile, they would pay more in an all-in-one fuel tax framework.

Vested interests are another problem. After the reform, road-related revenues would be transferred into the State coffer as the non-budgetary income of departmental interests.

Without a breakthrough on the fuel tax reform, the current legal controversy will continue.

Legislators must mend their pace to cut the knot.

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