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August 3, 2011 3:35 pm
Taxi drivers in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, whose strike entered its third day on Wednesday, are angry, intermittently violent, and desperately poor – the same volatile combination that is fuelling a growing number of low-profile incidents of unrest in China.
Hangzhou is a place of pride to most Chinese: a city of temples and pagodas, fine teas and some of the country’s most expensive shopping districts. But this week it has also been the scene of an important test of the Chinese government’s ability to placate, threaten, cajole and ultimately control workers whose incomes are under increasing pressure from rising prices.
Taxi drivers elsewhere in China, including Shanghai, will be watching how their brethren fare in nearby Hangzhou – and Beijing will be watching for signs of whether taxi unrest could spread to other cities.
In one gritty low-income suburb of Hangzhou, clusters of angry strikers gather beside the city’s busy Huzhou Aveneue as dusk falls, watched by a few dozen nervous police.
“We can’t make any money, so we have no other solution than to strike,” says a striker who gives his name as Liu. He expresses an increasingly common sentiment among drivers elsewhere that the local government is not playing fair with them. He says the Hangzhou government has repeatedly promised to raise cab fares; instead, the starting fare has remained at Rmb10 for eight years.
This sense of outrage has exploded into violence several times in Hangzhou in recent days, with drivers ambushing strikebreakers. It was the kind of violence seldom seen in China, outside the ethnically tense regions of Tibet or Xinjiang.
On Monday, the first day of the strike, official media said 1,500 taxis were involved – but strikers put the number much higher. On Tuesday, scores of strikers blockaded a police station, and several were arrested. By Wednesday, more taxis were back at work, but drivers had expanded their demands from higher fares, to pensions and the establishment of a labour union, according to state media. But though the Hangzhou strike is likely to peter out in the days or hours to come, the grievances that sparked it may not be laid to rest so easily – and may resurface in other cities, labour analysts said.
Already this week, drivers at one small Shanghai taxi company staged a work stoppage to protest against inadequate pensions. Few drivers joined that strike – but many warn they could be next to the picket lines. One Shanghai driver, who refuses to give his name, spluttered with rage at the way a recent fare increase, which took effect on Monday, was handled. Shanghai’s base fare rose from Rmb12 to Rmb14 on that day, giving drivers Rmb2 extra per trip; but at the same time, the government discontinued a petrol compensation payment of roughly Rmb60 per day – leaving drivers no better off despite the fare rise.
“The government is always talking about a harmonious society, but such actions are not harmonious at all,” he complains – though he says he dares not strike because “my company knows not just my phone number but my wife’s phone number, they will pressure her, the party is good at such things”.
Meanwhile in Hangzhou, the striking drivers, mostly migrant workers from Henan province, also dismiss a similar government effort to buy their compliance: a promise of a fare rise in October, and an emergency petrol compensation payment of Rmb1 per trip, effectively immediately. They say the Hangzhou government has repeatedly promised to raise fares; but the Rmb10 starting fare has not been raised in eight years. And their problem goes well beyond cash: transportation management officials, who regulate their business, are not impartial, they say.
Guo Yushan, a researcher at privately funded think tank Transition Institute, says China has had 60 taxi strikes since 2004. “Taxi drivers can’t participate in the drafting of polices relating to them, and can’t protect their rights through the courts or labour unions, which means they have no choice but to go on strike. If the system doesn’t change, the strikes will continue in different cities.”
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