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    Greater China
     Dec 11, 2008
Taxi protests test China's tolerance
By Stephen Wong

SHANGHAI - Tens of thousands of taxi drivers in various Chinese cities walked off the job successively in the past month in what might be China's biggest taxi strike in history. But what is even more unprecedented is that authorities have remained tolerant of the action and subsequent media coverage of the strikes.

The strike started in Chongqing municipality in early November, and taxi drivers in cities including Sanya in Hainan province, Yongdeng in Guizhou province and Shantou and Guangzhou in Guangdong soon followed, protesting high rentals and unfair competition from unlicensed taxis.

It's not the first time Chinese cabbies have launched a strike. Yet

 

in the past, such cases were sporadic and isolated, going unnoticed by outsiders as the state-controlled media refrained from reporting on protests while the government covered them up.

But this time the authorities have not only allowed the state-run media to freely cover the strikes; they have also acted promptly to hold dialogue with the cabbies, a sign the government might be growing more tolerant of workers' protests amid growing labor conflicts in an economic downturn.

After a series of riots this year, the government may have learned that crackdowns on protests do not reduce social conflicts. The issue now is how far the government is willing to go along this line.

Wave of strikes by cab drivers
The series of strikes started on November 3 in Chongqing, where 9,000 cabs operating in the city center stopped working over high fees charged to drivers, unfair competition from unlicensed cabs and a shortage of fuel. The violent strike lasted two days, resulting in more than 100 cars being smashed and police arresting a number of drivers.

Drivers in other cities soon followed. On November 10, hundreds of cab drivers rallied in front of the government building of Sanya, a tourist city in the island province of Hainan. Police detained 21 suspects for smashing taxis after their drivers refused to participate in the strike.

On November 10, in Landeng county in northwestern Gansu province, over 100 cab drivers went on strike. On November 19, nearly 300 drivers in the suburbs of Chongqing walked out. The wave of strikes spread to booming southern Guangdong province days later, with over 300 drivers on strike in Shantou on November 21. On December 1, over 10,000 taxi drivers walked out in Guangzhou, Guangdong's capital.

The scale of the strikes is unprecedented. The drivers said they had long been heavily exploited by taxi companies, which monopolize the market by controlling taxi licenses and fares.

Most taxi companies in China obtained licenses from the government at very low prices in the early 1990s. A taxi driver has to pay about three quarters of his revenue to the taxi company to rent a licensed taxi.

In Chongqing, where the strike started, taxi companies earn about 40,000 yuan (US$5,827) a month from each taxi. "This is probably the most profitable trade in the world," said Huang Qifan, vice mayor of Chongqing.

On the contrary, cab drivers have to work over 10 hours a day to earn an income that barely supports their families. Many drive unlicensed cabs, which are illegal but much more profitable than regular cabs, stealing business from regular cab drivers. Meanwhile, the conditions of cab drivers have worsened this year thanks to rising fuel prices and cab rental fees, increasing numbers of private cars and fuel surcharges.

Unusual response
The drivers' actions worked. In the cities where strikes stranded commuters, officials vowed to provide more fuel supplies, eliminate the extra fees that drivers are required to pay taxi companies and crack down on unlicensed cabs.

The media's sympathetic coverage and the Chongqing government's swift response have given the strikers the upper hand in negotiations with the cab companies.

On the third day of their strike, Chongqing's driver representatives received a rare audience by Bo Xilai, Chongqing party chief and a politburo member. The meeting was unusually high profile - it was broadcast live by the local TV station.

This has clearly set an example for governments of other cities. The local governments, which used to blame "a small number of criminals" for "instigating" the masses into street demonstrations, did not attribute the strikes to instigators this time. Instead of its usual iron-handedness, the government has given an ear to the drivers' complaints and has taken quick measures to solve their problems.

In Sanya, three government officials in charge of the city's transport stepped down after the strike. Yang Fengchun, executive vice mayor of Sanya, said it was the first time senior city officials had taken responsibility for unrest. "The penalty was heavy," said Yang.

China's state-controlled media gave wide and in-depth coverage of the strikes and generally showed sympathy to the drivers. The Communist Party's flagship newspaper, the People's Daily, reported the strikes on its front page on December 2, urging reforms for the current taxi license system. State-run Xinhua News Agency has reported almost every cabbie strike in the past month.

China's cab drivers have walked off the job before. For instance, Chongqing cab drivers went on strike seven years ago. Mary Gallagher, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, said taxi drivers were generally well organized as they could coordinate over their radio systems and "know they have a lot of power, being essential to transportation". However, those strikes didn't receive the amount of government and media attention bestowed on the recent Chongqing strike.

A more tolerant government
The way the government has dealt with the latest Chongqing strike is in sharp contrast to its earlier attitude toward social unrest.

In July, after a protest-turned-riot over the death of a middle-school girl in Weng'an, Guizhou province, Guizhou's party chief blamed the unrest on instigation by "members of criminal networks", although he acknowledged that the riot was also caused by "some social contradictions that have accumulated for a long time, and many controversies, some of which never received the attention they deserve, some of which were not solved in time", according to Xinhua.

Chongqing's tolerance of the cabbies' protest might be related to its relatively liberal leader Bo Xilai. Having served as China's minister of commerce and mayor of Dalian city, Bo is widely regarded as a capable and open-minded official, and insiders said he told the country's media censors not to screen out news about the strike.

The attention the government has given to the strikes also highlights official concerns about maintaining social stability as economic growth slows to a pace that may not provide enough jobs and wealth for the population.

Protests are already becoming more common across China as dissatisfaction grows over issues ranging from tough living standards to corruption.

"There's a lot more coming, though the government will probably take a very flexible approach to the strikes as long as it's in their interests to do so," Andreas Lauffs, a partner at the law firm of Baker & McKenzie specializing in Chinese labor issues, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal.

The central government is apparently trying to make grassroots officials adopt this new approach toward social unrest. The communist party held its first-ever leadership training program for over 2,000 grassroots officials last month. An important part of the program involved learning how to tackle social unrest, the Economic Observer reported. In the seven-day training program, the officials were told to hold a dialogue with protesters, rather than blaming them for being instigated by "criminals".

How tolerant? The cabbie strikes also underscore China's urgent need to deal with labor conflicts. Yet how China can deal with increasing labor conflicts and strikes under its current political system remains in question.

On November 13, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) issued a notice urging all taxi companies to establish trade unions. Union officials said this would help drivers negotiate with their companies and avoid extreme measures such as strikes.

But according to Chinese law, trade unions are based on individual companies, which pay membership fees to the ACFTU. As a result, trade unions are largely influenced by company management and can hardly speak for the workers.

In 2005, the Chongqing trade union refused an application from a group of cab drivers to establish a trade union, saying they had to go through their companies. The leader of the drivers, Yang Xiaoming, later lost his job for repeatedly petitioning for drivers' rights.

Even the media have questioned whether a trade union setup by an employer could truly protect labor rights. "Even if the taxi trade unions are established, will they be controlled by the government and the employers, and ignore the interests of the drivers?" asked the popular newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily.

Without a trade union that can truly represent their rights, workers still have a long way to go and China still has an uphill battle in building a "harmonious society".

The government's tolerance will be put to further tests with more social unrest expected to erupt amid the financial crisis and widening wealth gap. And not all officials are tolerant. The Guizhou government banned cabbies from going on strike after drivers in a county there walked off the job. The Guizhou ban was denounced by the media, but the central government did not comment.

The Chinese constitution makes no mention of strikes, either for or against. The lawmakers scrapped a stipulation on workers' rights from the constitution in 1982, saying that the rights of employers and employees were the same under the socialist system. But the constitution does not stipulate a ban on strikes, either.

In the Trade Union Law publicized in 1992, unions are asked to negotiate on behalf of the workers with the employers if workers refuse to work. This means Chinese workers have a "de facto" right to strike, said Gao Yifei, a profession at Southwest University of Political Science and Law. A lot of Chinese scholars are calling on the government to constitutionalize workers' rights to strike.

It's probably in the government's best interests to deal with the cab drivers' complaints, but how far the government will go in its tolerance of demonstrations is still unclear. Without political reforms, the fate of the protesters still lies with the government, not themselves.

Stephen Wong is a freelance journalist based in Shanghai.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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