Chinese Cab Drivers Protest Squeeze at Pump

China's government has warned taxi companies around the country to prevent possible strikes by cabbies upset at a rise in gas prices this week. Taxi drivers from several provinces have converged on Beijing in recent days to petition the government. They complain that government monopolies and a lack of independent unions mean cabbies and consumers — but not the taxi companies — are bearing the brunt of the price hike. NPR's Anthony Kuhn rides with and talks to taxi drivers whose efforts to organize unions and protests have been thwarted.

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In China, the government is keeping an eye on cabbies. In fact, it's telling cab companies they must prevent a possible strike. Taxi drivers are upset about rising gas prices and other things, including the government-enforced monopolies in the business.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn spoke with some Beijing cab drivers who are taking on the system.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

It's Friday afternoon rush hour. Tur din Yung(ph) tunes into the radio traffic report.

Ms. TUR DIN YUNG (China cab driver): (Speaks Foreign Language)

KUHN: A taxi has hit a cyclist off the third-ring road, and it's slow-going westbound on Jiangmen Y(ph) Avenue. Tur drives into the setting sun, which filters through the thick smog. Tur says that six years ago, his company was involved in a merger. Company managers forced him to sell his Volkswagen taxi back to them for $2,500.00, just two years after he bought it for $15,000.00.

In desperation, Tur and his colleagues headed for the city center to protest.

Mr. YUNG: (Through Translator) We put banners on our cars, saying severely punish the fraudsters. Give us back our blood and sweat money. Around 90 cars set out with me in the lead. Police stopped us before we got to Tiananmen Square. Some had guns and bulletproof vests.

KUHN: Now, Tur works ten-hour days minimum. He says his net take is equivalent to $750.00 a month. He takes home $250.00. Five hundred dollars goes to the taxi company.

Mr. YUNG: (Through Translator) I need my job, but I can only keep it if I accept being exploited by my bosses. They've stolen the value of my labor and illegally taken away my rights as a citizen to complete fairly in the marketplace.

KUHN: Since the last 1990s, the Beijing city government has given taxi companies a monopoly, barring self-employed drivers from the market. It has set taxi fares and limited the city's taxi licenses to 60,000 to insure that competition would not cut into taxi companies' profits, other cities have since followed Beijing's example.

Cabbies in several cities have protested, and illegal, unlicensed taxis have proliferated. Some taxi drivers have tried to change the rules governing their industry. One of them is Chow Trung Yung(ph). Chow lives near the Beijing Train Station, where every hour the clock still plays the old Maoist anthem, The East is Red.

In his small, two-room home, Chow goes online to read postings by other taxi drivers. Chow has lobbied the Beijing and national legislatures to try to force the government to end the monopolies.

Mr. CHOW TRUNG YUNG (China taxi driver): (Through Translator) The Beijing legislature has passed three resolutions on the taxi industry, but nobody has resolved the problem. I haven't seen any success in taking the parliamentary route. If the parliamentary route is a dead end, then is this still a democracy?

KUHN: The legislatures' motions are not binding on the government. Chow has also challenged the government's monopoly in court, but failed. One brief glimmer of hope for cabbies came in 1998, when a man named Dong Shin(ph) exercised his right under China's labor law to form a union. Its members triumphantly voted down a proposed merger of their company.

(Soundbite of café murmer)

Speaking of a downtown café, Dong says their victory was short-lived.

Mr. DONG SHIN (Formed union in Beijing): (Through Translator) Up to ten officials told the tax drivers in small groups, they told them to quit the union I had formed, they were forced to sign documents agreeing to this. Otherwise, they were told, they could lose their jobs.

KUHN: Then, Dong recalls, the officials spoke to him.

Ms. SHIN: (Through Translator) They said a labor union is a mass organization, but it has to be organized by the Communist Party, not the masses.

KUHN: Taxi fares in Beijing are expected to rise in the coming months, but cabbies like Dong say this will just mean fewer Beijingers will be able to afford a ride. The price hike does little to address what they see as the root problem, that without independent institutions and a voice in the policy making process, labor in China is at the mercy of capital.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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