BEIJING » Taxi drivers in a half-dozen cities across China have gone on strike in recent days to protest what they say are soaring expenses, shrinking incomes and the competition presented by a spate of new ride-hailing apps.
Early in the week, hundreds of drivers in the northeastern rust-belt city of Changchun blocked roads, prompting the intervention of police officers who arrested scores of drivers, according to social media postings that were later deleted by censors.
Cabbies in other cities, including Chengdu, in Sichuan province, and Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, also took part in organized work stoppages.
Last week, a two-day strike in Nanjing, a prosperous city in the Yangtze River delta, left thousands of people scrambling to find alternate transportation at the city’s airport, train stations and bus terminals.
In an article published by China Daily, one driver complained that he had to hand over more than half his fare receipts to the fleet company from which he rented his vehicle. "I get up before 6 a.m. every morning and sit for about 14 hours a day, only to get 2,000 yuan a month," or about $325, Liu Xingyou said. "That’s unbearable."
His income is $70 less than the national average.
Although taxi strikes in China are not new, the cascade of copycat protests around the country highlights the organizational power of social media, presenting a challenge to a government that has little tolerance for labor unrest.
According to China Labor Bulletin, a watchdog group based in Hong Kong, worker activism has surged in the past year, with 569 incidents counted in the final quarter of last year, or three times the number in the same period in 2013.
The group said the increase in protests and strikes by truck drivers, construction workers and miners was probably due to a slowing economy, but also to the spread of inexpensive smartphones that have allowed organizers to spread the word about unpaid wages, broken contracts and other labor complaints.
Cabdrivers in China have long complained about low wages and long days, but the recent strikes appear to also have been fueled by the spread of ride-hailing apps like Uber and a flurry of news media attention to what many drivers say is unfair competition.
Last week, the central government introduced new rules that prohibit privately owned vehicles from using such apps to offer rides. In an announcement posted on its website last Thursday, the Ministry of Transport said that only licensed taxis could use ride-hailing apps, a ruling that would seem to favor homegrown Chinese apps that allow users to summon licensed taxis by paying an additional fee.
"While we encourage innovation, we prohibit private cars from using platforms to participate in the ‘hired car’ business," the ministry wrote.
Uber drivers in a number of Chinese cities, including Shanghai and Chongqing, have been fined in recent weeks, but the service remains widely available. Huang Min, a spokeswoman for Uber in China, said the company had not been contacted by the authorities.
Geoffrey Crothall of China Labor Bulletin said the news media’s focus on ride-hailing apps obscured the main complaint of the Chinese taxi drivers: that rapacious fleet companies charge onerous rental fees that leave drivers with little to show for their toil.
"Drivers are basically held hostage to the companies, and they are constantly getting squeezed," he said. "But the discussion of these apps seems to have encouraged taxi drivers to press their case and try to draw attention to their long-standing grievances."
The strikes, it seems, are having the desired effect, and a number of newspapers in recent days have published commentaries supporting the plight of the drivers. In an editorial published on Jan. 6, the official People’s Daily described the current system as "deformed" and called for an end to the monopoly enjoyed by cab companies, many of which are owned by well-connected businessmen.
"The drivers are in an absolutely weak position," the editorial said. "It’s time to reform the taxi system. The matters of the market should be left for the market to decide."