The World of Chinese



only 7.8 percent of motor vehicles in China, they caused 22 percent of traffic deaths.

“We’ve all experience­d accidents,” Li laments. “Drivers get tired and crash…this job is extremely dangerous.” Sun left the industry in part because of a crash he had in Guangdong; with the brakes unable to stop the overloaded truck, he ditched into the middle barrier on the highway to avoid hitting a passenger vehicle in front.

“When the traffic police came to sort it out with me, they said that because this road was on a long downward slope there was an accident there every week,” he says. “After this accident, I thought that staying alive was more important than anything else.”

Meanwhile, driving in China’s remote areas and off the main highways can still be a Wild Westlike experience. Gasoline thieves remain a threat, and can cost a driver potentiall­y thousands of RMB, not to mention time on the road, which could lead to a deduction of fees paid by the client waiting for their goods.

Crooked cops demanding bribes, locals extorting “toll fees” from drivers, and thieves stealing goods from the truck in the night were all common. “I used to keep a 1.8-meter knife in my truck…when these people tried to take our goods or tried to make us pay, I would just get out and confront them,” says Sun.

Li says things are improving.

“Seven or eight years ago I had gasoline stolen, and even tires… but not anymore because the road management is much better, and people’s suzhi [character] has improved.”

Still, drivers’ forums on the internet still regularly report cases of theft and extortion, and in August this year, a trucker on video platform Kuaishou accused service stations of charging drivers “protection fees” to guarantee that their gasoline wouldn’t be stolen, implying that the security staff was in cahoots with the thieves.

Better management is welcomed by truckers, but this along with falling freight rates has made making money increasing­ly difficult. “Before the freight fees dropped to today’s excessivel­y low level, lots of vehicles could afford an extra driver. Drivers could eat at restaurant­s, sleep in hotels, and take the highway for the whole route,” an article on Trucker Family, a popular news app for drivers, lamented in June.

Now, Li brings snacks and instant noodles along for the ride, takes back roads for part of his journey to find cheaper diesel, and sleeps in his truck (if he sleeps at all).

Online platforms that allow truckers to browse for gigs, similar to how Uber matches passengers with cars, are also changing the industry and how drivers derive their income. Manbang, a firm which has been valued at 6.5 billion USD, owns Huochebang and Yunmanman, the two biggest truck-hailing platforms in China with a combined 13 million registered users, 9 million of them drivers. The company promises to improve the efficiency of China’s freight sector, reducing the time it takes for truckers to find goods and the number of empty trucks on the road.

But Li uses the apps only grudgingly. Once he has delivered his haul in Suzhou, he finds a place to park by the side of the road and browses Yunmanman on his phone for suitable assignment­s that will take him back to Henan. He makes a handful of calls, which all come to nothing. “It’s better if you can find goods [without using the app] because on the apps the good assignment­s go so quickly; the competitio­n is very fierce,” he explains.

Manbang, formed when Yunmanman and Huochebang merged in 2017, controls a dominant position in the market and has been accused of driving down freight rates by making truckers under-bid against each other for jobs.

A representa­tive for Manbang told TWOC that the apps help truckers

find work more quickly and easily. They also say that the company tries to “spread truck drivers’ voices” by raising awareness of the profession through the media.

But in 2018, dissatisfa­ction with these platforms, as well as rising fuel costs, seemingly arbitrary fines, and general loss of revenue, resulted in protests by truckers across the country including in Chongqing, Shanghai, Sichuan province, and Jiangxi province. Drivers formed long procession­s with their vehicles and brought traffic to a halt on some roads, while flying banners with messages such as “Refuse Low Prices” and “End Fatigued Driving.”

Truck-hailing apps are in part a response to the inefficien­cy of

China’s highly fragmented road freight industry. Small companies and single truck owner-operators make up the majority of the market, with 71 percent of vehicles owned by individual­s, according to the 2018 Tsinghua-transfar report. The result is that logistics costs took up 14.8 percent of China’s GDP in 2018, compared with just 8 percent in the US.

In response, China’s State Council called for large cargo and medium and long-distance freight transporta­tion to shift from the roads to rail and water, in part because rail is greener than transporti­ng by truck. But progress has been slow, with rail still accounting for less than 10 percent of freight transporta­tion. Xu Honglei, a researcher at the Ministry of Transport, stated in a forum on air pollution in 2019 that road freight is still cheaper than rail, if less efficient.

Authoritie­s still hope to increase the efficiency of China’s freight industry, but they have mentioned little about improving the working conditions of the drivers themselves. “Truckers’

 ??  ?? Trucks offer more flexibilit­y, despite government efforts to push more freight onto railways
Trucks offer more flexibilit­y, despite government efforts to push more freight onto railways
 ??  ?? During the pandemic, truckers gained praise but also saw disruption to their income
During the pandemic, truckers gained praise but also saw disruption to their income

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