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Negotiating with Taxis

After a year and a half in Shanghai, I have become extremely fond of taxis. Nothing is so comforting as the sight of a fleet of cabs--you can find them in red, yellow, blue and green--sitting along the street with "vacant" lights shining through their windshield. My affinity extends to the majority of taxi drivers in the city. I've had some near-death experiences as a pedestrian, but inside the cabs, drivers have helped educate me on topics from the financial crisis, the existence of aliens and, of course, the difficult business of being a taxi driver in China.

The complaints are the same across the country, long hours, squeezed profits and, most importantly, growing competition from illegal or "black" taxis. They have prompted a growing number of strikes across the country and an unexpected response from local governments and media.

Strikes are not protected by law in China. In the past they have been squashed quickly, with a few arrests and little media coverage, often referred to as "mass incidents" in the Chinese media. Since the first work stoppage in Chongqing, things seem different. China's media has reported widely on the incident, publishing accounts from drivers and using the word "strike" prominently in headlines. Some say that the coverage given to the first strike prompted drivers in other provinces to follow suit.

Not only is the media reporting on the strikes, the response of government officials is largely conciliatory. In Shanghai, with visions of the 2010 World Expo dancing in front of their eyes, government officials held a pre-emptive meeting with drivers across the city. Drivers in other cities have gone back to work after sitting down with local officials, who have promised to crack down on illegal taxis.

I like to think that the changing attitude toward the strikers is not a matter of prioritizing or spinning the media (what David Bandurski at the China Media Project calls "control 2.0"). Other recent civilian actions, like the "walk" in Xiamen protesting plans to build a chemical plant, have been successful.

There is some question, however, if the strikes themselves, the media reports and the concessions made by local governments get to the heart of the matter. Taxi drivers are being squeezed between government-mandated rates, rising gas prices, and monthly charges from their taxi companies. The government controls the licensing of taxi companies, and generally only allows three or four companies to operate in a given city. The taxi companies, in turn, make money from monthly fees levied on their drivers.

In Shanghai, the fees are upward of 300 RMB a day (the starting price of a ride in Shanghai is 11 RMB). One driver described the impact of these fees as oil prices rise--in a near 24-hour shift starting at midnight, the driver will start earning his own money around 6 in the evening.

These high fees have led some drivers to go it on their own and purchase a car themselves--in some cases a cheaper strategy. These are the "black" taxis that have gotten so much attention in the past month. Simply cracking down on the illegal drivers won't resolve the difficulties those drivers faced in the first place. Some editorials have called for drivers to be regulated directly by the government, giving out individual licenses rather than licensing companies.

The sit-downs between taxi drivers and government may not solve all the problems that drivers face. They may even be part of China's new media strategy, helping placate the drivers temporarily while the government turns its attention to the more pressing problems of the financial crisis. No matter the reason, I have found there is much to be learned from taxi drivers, and sitting down at the negotiating table seems like a step in the right direction.