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Endless calls to win war
( 2003-12-18 15:00) (Shanghai Star)

Shanghai -- There is ongoing warfare in the city today with poles and walls as positions and fliers and knives as weapons.

But now, a modern telephone warning system has been thrown into the battle against illegal advertisements by the Shanghai Public Sanitation Bureau and it is thought this has given the authorities an advantage in the next round of fighting.

The telephone system is nicknamed, "hu si ni" (meaning "call you to death") and works by pestering those pasting illegal advertisements with endless continuous calls to compel them to stop their random pasting of posters in public areas.

The system was first highlighted by the media when it was adopted last February in a district in Hangzhou, capital city of East China's Zhejiang Province.

As reported, the system in the district worked around-the-clock to dial the numbers printed on each advertisement, and eight such mobile phone users surrendered to the government on the first day.

Soon, the system was used throughout Hangzhou and many other cities adopted is as an effective way to combat the organizers of the fliers.

However, among the applause and praise, legal experts pointed out that such a "rude" way of dealing with the problem was not based in law and the system infringed upon a citizen's freedom of communication. Some even went so far as to say it was an abuse of power.

Legal puzzle

Shanghai did not launch phone blitz campaign until this month, mainly due to concern about its lawfulness.

According to Liu Weiguang, a publicity official from the bureau, the plan has been under discussion for a long time.

"Sophisticated investigation and confirmation work is a must before we dial the telephone number," he said. "It is a strict procedure."

He explained that pictures of the illegal fliers on poles and walls are required.

"Two workers must team up when taking pictures, and usually there must be more than one picture," he said. "One picture should be the panorama of the location of a flier. Then a close-up of the flier is needed, and the content of the flier should be clear in the picture."

Also, workers should record the location and the time when taking the pictures. Furthermore, witnesses and their testimony are also necessary.

On December 15, the first day the system put into operation, a total of 40 telephone numbers found on the fliers were called. So far, two of those called have handed themselves in for punishment.

Punishment of offenders is backed up by current Municipal Public Sanitation Regulations. The fourth and twenty-fourth articles of the regulations stipulate that random pasting and "doodling" are prohibited and the public sanitation department is empowered to punish violators.

"In fact, the city passed a regulation in 1997 to suspend the numbers of pagers or telephones published on the fliers," said Zhou Zhengyi, a member of the Shanghai Citizens' Inspection Team which submits advice to the government collected from local residents.

According to the rules issued in 1997, telecommunication numbers on the fliers may face a 30-day suspension.

"However, the rule was stopped because someone said that the measure was illegal," recalled Zhou, a retired university teacher.

However, many also retorted the use of the phones by the advertisers was not illegal at all.

"These people have just resorted to modern telecommunication tools for illegal business," Liu said. "Can such illegal behaviour be put under the protection of the law?"

Zhou and other members of the team examined the content of the fliers early in 1996. "These are not merely fliers - they may be illegal businesses or even criminal activities," Zhou said, taking out a folder of fliers which had not been pasted up yet.

"Last week, I caught a man red-handed when he was pasting and got these sheets from them," he explained.

The content of the advertisements was to employ men and women public relations staff with a monthly salary of 20,000 yuan (US$2,418). Most people would easily understand from the text of the flier that the "public relations staff" would be employed just to provide pornographic services.

"However, such employment fliers can be seen almost everywhere," said Yang Cunyi, head of the team. "Many of the clinics claiming to cure venereal diseases may be operating without licences."

Street harassment

However, the bureau expressed regret because they cannot arrest the people who, in fact, were running the business.

"What we can do now is to stop people pasting fliers but there is no legal basis for us to catch them," Liu said.

Yang and Zhou said that to crackdown on the problem needed the co-operation of the police, the Industrial and Commercial Bureau, the Public Sanitation Bureau and local residents.

The telephone call system only targets the sheets pasted on walls and poles. However, now there are many similar advertisements in the form of cards distributed by provincial people.

"It is really a headache when confronting the distributors," said Lily Huang, a white-collar worker who takes the Metro every day.

"Several people stuff the little cards into your hands, and some would even stand in the middle of the lift. I have to elbow them out of the way to get onto the lift."

Currently, many of these cards just carrying information about cheaper plane tickets.

"The number of cards jumped after the SARS epidemic and now there are more than 100 people just working as distributors along the street," said Zhou Shunguo, director of Nanjing Lu Pedestrian Street Supervision Office.

"Our patrolling staff every day can confiscate more than 50 kilograms and the cards now seized by us totals around five tons."

However, what makes Zhou and the public sanitation staff more worried is that the provincial people have formed groups and often three or five of them would team up.

"It is a dangerous sign," he said. "They may pose a threat to the social order on footpaths. We badly need to ensure the joint co-operation of all the relevant departments."

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