Chinese boarding a train at railway station in downtown Beijing. Pic: AP.

By Patrick Boehler

The train ticket buying frenzy for Chinese New Year has long begun. But what should have been a year of exceptionally smooth operations after corruption purges at the Ministry of Railways and the official ticket selling website’s second year online, could be just another year of embarrassment for those in charge of handling the country’s annual travel peak season.

The website, 12306.cn, which suffered embarrassing breakdowns last year, has been prone to problems again this year. Almost quarter of a billion people return to their hometowns once a year for Spring Festival and the faulty website system is often their best bet to get their cherished ticket home.

(READ MORE: China’s railways braced for massive New Year exodus)

Yet, instead of apologising to its costumers or, alas, providing a better service, the Ministry of Railways resorted to old tactics to try keep the website running i.e. blocking other websites.

Frustrated with 12306.cn‘s unreliable service web-savvy netizens like Ningbo-based Ni Chao developed browser plug-ins that alerted them as soon as tickets became available. The plug-in would constantly refresh the website until it would get through. This increased the website’s traffic and thus made it even more unstable.

On the night of January 18 plainclothes thugs approached Ni and advised him to take his software down. “It’s not fair to others,” they argued, he told the Beijing Youth Daily, because others wouldn’t be as tech-savvy as he was. “My biggest disappointment was that, in a year’s time, I have not seen the slightest improvement in 12306′s ticketing service,” he wrote on his microblog.

One day ahead of Ni’s strange encounter, the coding platform GitHub became partially inaccessible in China, according to GreatFire.org, which monitors internet censorship in the country. On Monday, GitHub was completely blocked causing an outcry among Chinese programmers, who rank fourth in terms of users of the popular platform.

“Github has no ideology, no reactionary content,” former Google China head Kai-fu Lee wrote on his Sina Weibo microblog. “Blocking GitHub makes no sense.” Lee’s microblog is followed by 26 million people, his rant was shared more than 90,000 times.

The blocking of the website was first thought to be because of “Mongol”, a tool that allows tracing of the physical location of routers of China’s Great Firewall. Soon, the consensus theory became that the site was blocked because it hosted parts of plug-ins such as Ni’s which alert netizens when tickets become available on the official ticketing website.

By shutting down GitHub, the censors tried to lower traffic and make sure the embarrassing website could work, or so the theory went. But to many the outrage it caused was much larger than the good it did in keeping the website running. ”Blocking GitHub is like setting a house on fire to catch a rat,” wrote one microblogger in a since deleted post. “The house will burn down, but the cat will get away.” Today, GreatFire.org said that GitHub has been unblocked.

12306 was commissioned by the Ministry of Railways more than 10 years ago and the Southern Metropolis Daily revealed yesterday that it cost more than RMB500 million (US$80 million) to develop.

On January 9, the Railways Ministry said that the website was “ready” for the massive increase in requested expected during Spring Festival. On the same day, state-run news agency Xinhua reported that Liu Zhijun, long-time Railways Minister, had been “transferred to judicial organs for handling,” along with disgraced former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. Liu, who had been sacked in 2011, “bore the major responsibility for severe corruption in the railways system,” Xinhua said. Even state media speculated “that kickbacks were involved in the website-project bidding process,” some 10 years ago.