Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Empty Seats and Corruption in China

Hi Everyone,

Has anyone else noticed the enormous number of empty seats in many events at the Olympics?  NPR did a story yesterday afternoon about this.  They interviewed a young Chinese woman (I think they said she was 18) who was in tears about how much she had wanted to see Federer in a tennis match.  "I just love him so much" she said, obviously weeping.  She had waited in line for hours to get a ticket only to be turned away at the counter saying they were sold out.  But there were empty seats...lots and lots of empty seats when the reporter watched the match with her press pass.  

On the human interest side, who could help but have sympathy for this young fan who had probably been looking forward to seeing her sports idol for years only to be turned away at the last minute?  

But what I found interesting in the story was the reason why fans were being turned away even though there were open seats.  Party big shots and well connected business types had grabbed up all the tickets and reserved them for clients.  But the clients aren't showing up to the actual events and I think I've figured out why.  Suppose you are a corrupt politician or businessman in China.  You're unethical but not a fool.  You want to hand out Olympic tickets as favors to people who you hope will later help you in something that actually matters.  But you don't want to offer your client a ticket to a swim meet only to find that they're really volleyball fans.  So you grab up lots of both kinds of tickets (or actually, you get a wide selection of tickets).  But your clients can only go to one event at a time so the rest of the tickets you offered them go unused.  Of course corporate fat cats grab up lots of tickets to the Super Bowl, World Series or World Cup too.  But those events are only one sport at a time.  So you don't have the problem having to over supply options to clients.  

Obviously, this looks bad for the Chinese government.  They want this to be the most successful Olympics ever.  It just looks bad to have world wide TV showing all those empty seats.  So NPR is reporting that the government is bringing in gangs of hired cheerleaders who sit in as many of the empty seats as they can fill on short notice and yell and wave flags.  Meanwhile the young fan sits and cries at home.  

This kind of SNAFU is typical of governments with a command economy mindset.  First, they don't just trust that the market will fill the seats.  Then, because power is concentrated and unaccountable, the planned system they set up to make sure the seats got filled gets corrupted and fails flamboyantly.  

In comments on an earlier posting, Bert Q. Slushbrow pointed out that people in China are very upset about the Party big shots getting their kids inserted in the opening ceremonies.  I'm curious if the seat/ticket situation has reached that level of outrage.  


The Law Talking Guy said...

I think it's tragic what RBR reports, but I suspect other forces are also at work.

Many of the tickets were also probably bought by Westerners or Western ticket companies, just as they do to US games, only there's no scalping market that works over there. If scalpers and second-hand retailing didn't exist in the USA, most concerts would look empty if ticket brokers behaved as they do now.

I suspect that the number of Chinese citizens who are genuinely fans of effete Western tennis stars are few. So I don't expect much outrage. It is still a privileged Chinese person with the time and money to become a fan of western sports stars and contemplate spending hard won Yuan on a ticket.

In fact, I suspect that the biggest problem is that the vast majority of sports hold no interest to the Chinese public (including the favored insiders who can get the tickets) - just as I found the leathery women in bikinis playing beach volleyball (while the men sensibly wear shirts) too tedious to watch last night for the third night in a row. And just as most Olympic sports aren't televised at all.

Raised By Republicans said...

Of course, Walmart is probably a major culprit in the corporate ticket blocs problem. I should not have implied this was a Chinese problem only.

But the example that NPR reported was because they needed to find an upset fan who liked someone American radio listeners could relate to. I imagine there were lots of disappointed Chinese gymnastics or diving or badminton fans.

Raised By Republicans said...

Besides if I was just a random member of the new Chinese middle class in Beijing and had trouble getting a ticket through normal channels then sat at home only to see lots of empty seats at the event that I wanted to see I'd be pissed.

I mean, the Olympics are a big deal, you don't need to be a Roger Federer superfan to want to see an Olympic event.

Bert Q. Slushbrow, Sr. said...

The "word on the street" with Chinese is more a sense of "c'est la vie". The fact that the powerful and connected can snap up blocks of tickets is just a fact of life, here as well as in China. Nobody is really surprised by it.

The reason for so many empty seats is probably a function of that fact that tickets will be given many, many, many (many?) times over as gifts and as they filter further down the food chain and further around the country the odds of someone actually being able to make use of them get smaller and smaller.

LTG's comment about a lack of scalping opportunities is an interesting possibility though I suspect the value of the tickets (especially to the earlier events) as gifts is probably greater than their cash value. Gift giving as a business practice is huge in China... sadly it too often turns into bribery but that is another topic.

Regarding Chinese being fans of western sports stars be aware that NBA players are widely known and highly regarded (LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are more popular than Yao Ming, for instance). I'll second the leathery volleyball women in bikinis being tedious (frankly I'd rather see more ping pong than beach volleyball). I also think they should require dressage riders dress like that... that, I would Chinese are probably interested in a broader spectrum of sports than most Americans, just fyi. Also, China broadcasts practically every event and they do it live (something they do with all sports even if they come on at 3:00 a.m.). A student from Chengdu who has been staying with us this past week was shocked at what he saw as the lack of olympics coverage here compared to there.

USwest said...

I thought there was supposed to be live websasting. Is that not happening?

USWest said...

And why can't the young fan become one of the "Cheerleaders"?

Bert Q. Slushbrow, Sr. said...

The live webcasting is interesting. You CAN watch pretty much everything live at However, any feeds from China are.... drumroll please... censored. Internet censorship and China are old hat but the REALLY interesting bit is that it isn't China censoring it. It is NBC (the mechanics of the blockage obviously require much complicity on all sides but the man behind the curtain is still NBC). So is it bad to block websites for political reasons but ok to block them for commercial reasons? Smells like double standard to me.

If you use a proxy server located in China to access the web you can circumvent the blockage but then content delivery is too slow to watch live events. Oh the irony! Accessing a proxy server to get IN to China... that is a hoot.

Our Chengdu student has many friends who are volunteers and he said that you don't really get to pick the sport you cheer for (I mean, who would deliberately pick speed walking?) so signing u is a bit of a crap shoot. Really you'd just sign up for the whole experience, not a specific event.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Bert: Heck, I'm appalled at the lack of olympics coverage here. I can't wait for the damned Michael
Phelps show to be over. I mean, yes, it's amazing, but let's put it in perspective: the reason swimmers get so many medals is that there are so many events. 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m relay, all in each kind of stroke it seems. There's only one "stroke" in running. There aren't 12 kinds of soccer, for example, and the Decathlon is one medal, not ten. So it's not surprising in that sense that Phelps is surpassing... Spitz. There are 28 "sports" at the summer Olympics and 302 medal-awarding events. 34 (more than 10%) are swimming events (17 each for men and women).

I'm not trying to say Phelps is chopped liver. He's freaking amazing. But to say he's the greatest Olympian ever because of the number of gold medals he has won does sort of denigrate the achievements of those who compete very well in sports with fewer events. For running, there are 24 events, and these should be seriously divided between sprint events, hurdles, and long-distance events.

What is NBC going to do for week two of the Olympics? Talk about Marion Jones not being there?

Raised By Republicans said...

"And why can't the young fan become one of the "Cheerleaders"?"

That's my point really. The command mentality of Chinese leaders means they never considered simply opening up empty stadiums to interested people on the street for free.

When I was at UCLA there was a period when the basketball team was pretty bad (shocking for UCLA). UCLA responded by making basketball tickets virtually free. You could show up at the last minute and just walk in. They don't do that anymore.

Chinese Olympic officials could easily do something similar. Simply say that if X% of the tickets haven't been checked in by 30 minutes before the event starts, they'll sell (really cheap) another block of tickets at the gate at the last minute. That's how Americans would fill up the stands (hell, that's pretty much how airlines book flights). But apparently it just doesn't occur to even a reform minded communist to do that.

Bert Q. Slushbrow, Sr. said...

Have you ever seen Chinese in line for something? It more closely resembles a violent rugby scrum than anything else. If China tried to give away tickets for free I would expect there to be about a 30% mortality rate for those "waiting in line", lol.

Seriously though, the logistics of an olympic give away in China would be significantly different and more severely complicated than such a give away in the U.S. Unless you've been over there and experienced the scale of chaos that such a thing can bring, you really can't understand just how serious the problem could be.

Simply blaming it on it not occurring to reform minded communists is not very fair.

Raised By Republicans said...

"Chinese in line for something? It more closely resembles a violent rugby scrum than anything else."

Well, that would consistent with a rational response (by the individuals in the crowd) to shortages brought about by price controls. You see the same thing at US department enough Tickle-Me Elmos. ;-)

OK, so maybe not for free. But they should sell the extra tickets for cheap enough that most ordinary Beijing residents could go to an event or two.