Taxi Discontent in Shantou: Who's to Blame?

By Xie Liangbing, Yang Xingyun
Published: 2008-12-05

From Nation, page 9, issue 396, Dec 1, 2008
Original article: [Chinese]

Though he had heard the rumor that all taxies in his city would go on strike on November 20, Zhang decided he would drive as usual early that morning. "How can I make money if I don't drive?" he asked.

But soon after he set out, he discovered the rumor was anything but. When several taxi drivers stopped him on the road some time after 7 am, he immediately promised that the customer in his taxi would be the last of the day. "We happened to know each other, so they spared my car," he said.

Zhang went back home after he drove that last passenger. "I saw many smashed taxies on my way back. It would be safer to stay at home," he said.

Having worked as a taxi driver for over a decade in Shantou, a coastal city in Guangdong province, Zhang said it was the first time he found driving a taxi so difficult.

Two Days Off
Unlike Zhang who risked retribution by driving, Song stayed home on November 20. "I've got a family and children. I can't act like a young man and make trouble outside with reckless abandon," he said.

Song moved from Anhui province to Shantou 14 years ago. He drove his taxi more than ten hours a day, earning an average of 2,000 yuan a month. He said he treated the strike like a break, adding, "I'll be even worse off if I don't strike."

Most drivers that day chose to rest at home like Song, but more aggressive ones teamed up to smash unlicensed taxies and those with fake plates. Others gathered at the People's Square to protest.

Despite the local authorities' offer to talk, the strike continued the next day. During those two days, several suspected unlicensed taxies were smashed or turned upside down.

On November 22, the municipal department of public affairs announced that more than 300 taxies had returned to work. But after a day's observation of several streets, this reporter only saw a couple of taxies at the long distance bus station, and they demanded prices double the normal fare.

Song returned to work on November 23. "Before we got to work, the company sent someone to check the odometer. They checked it again when we returned the car at night to make sure we all worked. Those who didn't work would get punished," he said.

Official data showed that 745 taxies returned to work that day. This number was even higher than normal days according to Ye Xianhua, director of Shantou's transportation bureau.

According to him, most drivers who took part in the strike were from Anhui, as they owned more new taxies, which were charged more by the company. Henan drivers were not that active, as many unlicensed vehicles were owned by migrants from their hometown. "We are all laoxiang [from the same hometown]. We'd better not say anything," said one Henan driver.

Unlike previous strikes in Chongqing and Sanya which had blocked traffic, the one in Shantou didn't impact public transportation much, as buses, tricycles, and motorcycles were the main means of transportation there.

Living on the Margins
At five or six every morning, most taxies on the roads of Shantou had seafood stuffed in their trunks, heading for restaurants and seafood dealers. 

When dawn broke, except for those scouting airports, bus stations, hotels and hospitals, most taxies left downtown for the suburbs, leaving the 1.2 million population there to three-wheeled pickups and motorcycles.

Besides buses, locals were more willing to take the three-wheeled pickups or motorcycles than a taxi. They disliked taxies because they were shabby, dirty, expensive, and sometimes cheated or mistreated customers. The flag-fall price was RMB 8 or 9, and covered the first 2.5 kilometers of a trip. Each kilometer after that cost RMB 2.6. In contrast, the price for a tricycle or motorcycle usually varied between RMB 3 and 10.

Locals complained that taxis often took detours, asked two or more strangers to share a taxi and then charged them all the same fare, and even fought for customers. 

According to official data, taxies in Shantou had customers only 35% to 45% of the time they were on the road, far lagging the average level of all Pearl River Delta cities, which stood at around 65%. To reduce costs, instead of searching for customers in the streets, some drivers stopped their cars at hotels, restaurants and bus stations, or simply shuttled between the downtown area and the suburbs.

However, in recent years, they lost customers on the suburb routes as unlicensed taxies proliferated there. Some of them were private cars, and others used fake license plates to avoid being caught.

Even worse, though the suburbs of Chaoyang, Chaonan, and Chenghai had been integrated into the city's center district, taxies in these areas were still supervised by their own transportation bureaus. Confusing regulations often led drivers to unexpected fines.

Local drivers said the strike this time took aim at unlicensed and fake-plate taxies. Legally registered taxies in Shantou totaled some 1,000 today, while the number of unlicensed motorcycles, tricycles, and taxies was as high as 5,000, among which 500 to 1,000 were private cars.

The taxi industry in Shantou sprang up in 1991 and reached its peak in 1999, when there were 57 taxi companies with altogether 3,643 taxies. However, several consecutive years of economic decline has since diminished their numbers.

Today the number of taxies in Shantou was down by 70% to 1,333, and the number of taxi companies shrank to 26, of which 4 top firms controlled 80% taxies there.

"Transportation Companies"
According to a local taxi driver, the reason for rampant unlicensed taxies was that some transportation officials took bribes from private car and scrap car owners.

"They pay 500 to 800 yuan a month for the right to drive them as legal taxies," said a driver. As such vehicles were free from charges levied on normal taxies, they could charge customers lower prices, he added.

Some drivers referred to corrupt officials as "transportation companies", as they were the real supporters of unlicensed taxies.

"A laoxiang of mine drives such a taxi. He also fakes license plates. One plate for six cars," a driver from Henan province told the Economic Observer.

He said some people would spend 5,000 yuan on a scrap car from Guangzhou or Shenzhen and paint it like a taxi, even buy a taxi license plate. They then paid transportation officials several hundred yuan to look the other way should they be caught. "I once saw a laoxiang buy eight scrap cars from Guangzhou in containers," he added.

The municipal secretary Huang Zhiguang pointed out the fundamental cause for disorder in Shantou's taxi industry. He said at a meeting on November 25, "the problems in the transportation market today reveal the irresponsibility and inaction of transportation supervisors. It means they are not fair and honest."

Unlike other cities, where the "traffic and transportation administration and service center" fell under supervision of the transportation bureau, the two organizations in Shantou were at the same administrative level. They had different regulations and standards for fees.

Redundant supervision led to poor management, contradictory enforcement, and disorder, said Ye, the municipal transportation bureau's director.

According to the bureau's deputy director Yu Changzhi, fake plates had become the toughest problem. There were always new loopholes, he said.

He recalled that once, a supervisor caught a fake-plate car which not only had real certificates but most of the details on the car, down to the paint job, also checked out. The only thing that didn't was the engine and chassis registration numbers.

He said between June and October last year, they found over 1,000 unlicensed vehicles in Shantou. From April to September this year, they caught another 2,970.

Asked whether there was corruption among some officials, Ye said there had been such complaints earlier but he had yet to verify, adding that the discipline inspection department had looked into the case.

Cliques of Laoxiang
Like their peers in other cities, taxi drivers in Shantou didn't have an organization representing their interests. About 94% of them being migrants, they know each other as laoxiang, with most hailing from Henan, Anhui, and Hubei provinces.

There were several famous "taxi villages" in Shantou where different cliques of laoxiang lived: Chencuohe and Neichonggong for those from Henan, Feixia for those from Anhui, and Dongdun for Jiangxi and Hubei drivers.

Those villages clung to the city limits, and most drivers lived in so-called "shaking-hands houses" built by locals, which were so close to each other that they looked as if they were shaking hands with each other.

Different cliques had their own territories – Henan drivers occupied the railway station and the airport, Jiangxi drivers had the bus station, and others controlled some higher-end hotels and hospitals.

"For example Henan drivers had exclusive rights to the gate of Dihao Hotel. We don't dare to compete for customers there. They give the hotel 400 yuan a month for this," said a driver who wishes to remain anonymous.

The gang nature of the taxi cliques bred aggression between taxi drivers protecting their rights - they resorted to violence to stop other drivers from working their turf, and took out their anger on unlicensed cars. 

But their violent actions during the strike may have been misdirected. Ye said that none of the 20 cars overturned during it were actually illegal taxies as they thought.