Driven to despair in China

Cabbies: Thousands of laid-off factory workers in Beijing have turned to running taxis, but competition is stiff.

March 31, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Xiong drove his taxi to Beijing's airport Wednesday night, parked by the side of the road, ate a bowl of spicy instant noodles and covered himself with a People's Liberation Army overcoat for a few hours' sleep before the early morning flights arrived from Helsinki and Bangkok.

He hoped the new day would be better than the previous one. For 16 hours' work, he had earned $2.

Taxi competition is brutal in Beijing, where thousands of workers laid off from state-owned industries have turned to driving cabs. The capital has 67,000 cabs and 100,000 drivers, who say they work 12- to 16-hour shifts just to scrape by and complain about the high rental fees charged by taxi owners.

Xiong, 30, lost his job last year at a state-owned textile factory when the company collapsed. He turned to taxis as an employer of last resort.

He is among more than 40 million state workers - roughly equivalent to the population of Spain - who have lost their jobs since 1995, when China began dismantling its command economy in favor of developing a more market-oriented one. For workers used to a paternalistic system that promised lifetime jobs and cradle-to-grave social services, the layoffs have been painful.

Though many workers acknowledge that the old socialist system couldn't last, they remain bitter about meager severance payments and the lack of a government safety net. In China's northeastern Rust Belt, thousands of laid-off workers recently took to the streets to demand better severance pay.

The regime forbids such large-scale dissent in Beijing. Last week, about 100 retired autoworkers staged peaceful demonstrations, but police easily controlled them.

As to whether Beijing cabbies could protest in force for better working conditions, Xiong said, "It's unimaginable."

He joins at least 2,000 other cabdrivers every day in the parking lots in and around Beijing's old airport terminal, which the government closed in 1999 in favor of a new one next door built of glass and steel. The drivers wait three to six hours for a paying passenger.

Like Xiong, who declined to give his full name, some drivers arrive the night before and sleep outside. A half-hour after the parking lot gates opened at 7 a.m. Thursday, nearly 500 cabs were waiting for fares. By midday, the number had swelled to more than 1,000.

Drivers spend the hours reading newspapers, drinking tea from glass jars, sleeping in the back seats of their cabs, smoking and gabbing. The parking lot reeks of urine. Vendors roam among the cars, selling cigarettes, bottled water, snacks and feather dusters.

Old-timers recall the better days of the early 1990s, when the city had perhaps 20,000 cabs. Drivers could make more than $6,000 a year, they say. In 1992, the government allowed private investment in cab companies, and the number of taxis skyrocketed, according to a study by a Beijing research center.

The Chinese capital has one cab for every 194 people - more than three times as many per capita as New York City. The market is so saturated that cabs roam empty across Beijing, clogging expressways and jamming intersections.

"When you hail a cab, you don't even have to stretch your arm," said Yan Jianren, a 41-year-old driver whose first name means "Building up the people." "If you smooth your hair, more than three cabs will stop."

Cheap by American standards, taxis are viewed as a relative luxury by Beijing residents, who can travel the length of the subway system for 36 cents. Several years ago, the city tried to spur demand by reducing cab fares.

The fare for sedans is usually $1.20 plus 30 cents a mile, but drivers continue to struggle. The government hinted last year that it would reduce the number of taxis but has yet to do so, perhaps so it can continue to use cabs as a safety valve for laid-off workers.

When Xiong graduated in 1991 from a technical school in Shunyi, a Beijing suburb, he followed a long-standing career path: He inherited his father's job driving trucks at the Beijing Textile Chemical Factory. In February last year, the company halted operations and laid off at least 60 workers, including Xiong.

He turned to taxis.

One company, North Taxi, with a fleet of 3,000 cabs, says it provides preferential treatment to laid-off workers, hiring them before other applicants and helping them through the city's cumbersome licensing process. Cabbies, though, describe a system that resembles indentured servitude.

Xiong says he pays about 85 percent of his gross earnings as fees and overhead. On Thursday, on a ride into town from the airport, he ticked off his monthly expenses. There's $628 in rental fees to the cab company for the car. Two hundred forty-one dollars goes for gas and maintenance - repairs for a vehicle he will never own. And $16 is for parking in the state-owned lot at the airport while he waits for passengers.

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