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China Labour Action Express No. 40 (2004-01-21)

In new developments to the worker unrest in Dazhou City, Sichuan province, some 1,000 taxi-drivers began their second strike in a month and sent representatives to Beijing in an attempt to draw attention to their plight. A total of at least 19 people have been detained in the protests – one of them, Xiong Zhangqi, remains in detention and under formal arrest. [Note1]

Out on Strike

On 24 November, after learning of the government’s move to cancel all existing Taxi Operation Certificates (TOCs or permits) and to resell them at auction at a greatly increased price without any form of compensation, some 1,000 angry taxi-drivers began a week-long strike. Around 800 drivers staged a sit-in in front of the municipal government building to protest against the decision. Initially the local government claimed that there was nothing they could do as they were simply implementing a earlier “policy” decision. However, on 4 December, in an attempt to calm the protests, the Dazhou Mayor, Li Xiangzhi, told drivers’ representatives that the “proposal” was not yet confirmed and the government would consider the drivers’ demands.

This promise was quickly broken when the government went ahead with its plans for the auction to be held on 10 January 2004. The outraged drivers launched another strike on 18 December, 2003. Although, a handful of drivers were forced to resume work after threats from the local police, the majority continued their strike for several days.

[In December, CLB published details of the November strike and some background to the case: for more details please see Action Express No.39 ]

Petitioning the central authoritites in vain

After a meeting of drivers, it was also decided that that representatives should go to Beijing to state their case. From 16 December onwards, scores of drivers made their way to Beijing by bus, plane and train. In total, some 150 – 200 drivers went to the capital. Previously, in late November 2003, some drivers had traveled to the provincial capital of Chengdu to complain to the provincial government. However, according to workers, the Dazhou municipal government had just been newly formed by the provincial government and officials were not willing to challenge decisions made by the new officials.

In Beijing, the drivers went to the State Council’s Letters and Complaints Bureau, who told them to take their complaint to the Transport Department. The Transport Department however told the delegation to go back to the Letters and Complaints Bureau. Finally, the Letters and Complaints Bureau met with them and stated that they refused to recognize their case as a rightful complaint. The Bureau also refused to issue them with a recommendation letter [non-local complainants can receive free accommodation in the hostel run by the Letters and Complaints Bureau if they are issued with a recommendation letter stating their case is being looked the by the Bureau].

The Bureau did however ask a Dazhou government official to travel to Beijing to discuss the case. On 5 January, the protestors met with these officials and the Beijing officials and were told that they must return to Dazhou as the case would not be resolved by the Beijing authorities. The drivers ended up sleeping on the freezing streets in Beijing for four nights after they had run out of funds and refused to return to Dazhou.

In the afternoon of 6 January, some 40 policemen from Dazhou and Beijing worked together to force the drivers into vehicles and take them back to Dazhou. Some tens of drivers managed to evade the police and remained in Beijing – a total of 99 drivers were forcibly removed and sent back. A further two drivers managed to escape from the buses at an interchange stop during the journey, while the remainder were transferred into nine small long-distance buses and driven to Dazhou.

Detention of protestors

The buses containing the 97 drivers arrived at Dazhou at 5pm on 8 January. According to several drivers who witnessed the scene, the returnees were pushed by police into the Police training Institute, located in a suburban area of Dazhou. After each driver’s identity was checked, 86 of them were released, while the remaining 11 were detained for two more days for “education” purposes. News of detention spread in the city and later that same day, scores of drivers arrived at the Institute to protest against the illegal detention of the eleven – many of them also camped overnight. In the afternoon of 9 January, family members arrived to visit the detainees - however they were not allowed into the Institute, but could only meet at the gates.

After a short meeting, the visitors were asked to leave and as they were leaving, they heard screams and saw the 11 detainees struggling with the police on the top floor of the institute. Anxious to find out what was happening, the drivers and visitors pushed on the iron gates and managed to open a small door allowing some 20 family members and drivers to rush into the building. Drivers nearby also sent mobile phone text messages (SMS) to ask for help from other taxi-drivers in Dazhou. Over 400 taxis then rushed to the Police Training Institute.

Once inside the Institute the visitors learnt that one of the detainees, a driver named Jiang, had found out that his father had died while he was in Beijing. Jiang was extremely upset and tried to jump from the top floor of the building in a suicide attempt, causing the other detainees to also try to jump off the building. [When Jiang went to Beijing, his cancer-patient father was critically ill and when he was returned to Dazhou by the police, Jiang had asked to be sent home as quickly as possible. However, the police continued to detain him and by the time the police had confirmed his story with his work unit, it was too late and his father had died.]

Eventually the situation was calmed down and the suicide attempts were restrained. According to witnesses, some police officers also stated that they did not mean to treat the drivers badly but that they could not refuse orders. During the struggle, two of the detainees managed to escape, while Dazhou Steel & Iron Factory, where Jiang’s late father worked, sent a vehicle to take Jiang home.

On the morning of 10 January, about 10 family members came to visit the remaining eight detainees, but were asked to leave at noon to make way for “important visitors”. The family members remained close to the Institute and watched as a Dazhou Deputy Mayor, Ma Bo, and Wei Changping, Chief of the Public Security Bureau arrived. By 3am on 11 January, a total of four detainees had been released, while over 100 riot police formed a barricade against the visitors and the watching taxi-drivers. The riot police then brought out the four remaining detainees one after another and drove them away. Liu Ren, an “uncooperative” female detainee, was struck heavily against the iron gates as she was led out. According to a witness, the Deputy Mayor, Ma Bo, had said earlier in the day that; “we must keep four [detainees] as an example to others”.

The four remaining detainees were Liu Yu (female, in her 30s, from Dazhou), Liu Ren (female, 24, from Neijiang), Zhu Xiaohong (male, in his 20s, from Fulin) and Xiao Wenjiu (male, in his 40s, from Neijiang). According to witnesses, they were all charged with “violating social order” and were to be held in criminal detention for 10 to 15 days at the Da County No.2 Detention Centre and the Fengming Gate, Tongchuan District Detention Center.

Liu Ziqing [detained on 3 January], from Fulin district, was also being held in a Dazhou detention centre on similar charges after having been denied entry to government hearings, ostensibly organized by the local officials to listen to the workers.

All five of them have now been released.

The other seven detainees, who were held at the Police Institute and have now been released were: Yuan Ting (female, in her 30s, from Dazhou), Jiang Lin (male, in his 30s, from Dazhou), Chen Jing (female, in her 30s, from Neijiang), Wen Jing (female, in her 30s, from Neijiang), Zhao Yun (male, in his 30s, from Fulin), Li Dekui (male, in his 30s, from Fulin or Neijiang), Lin Dehui (male, in his 50s, from Chongqing).

The detainees [estimates give at least three detainees] who were apprehended in late November have also all been released.

However, still in detention is Xiong Zhangqi, a driver-owner [who owned some eight cars] who was detained on 2 January in Chengdu, when he tried to hand over official documents from the Beijing Letters and Complaints Bureau to the provincial government. It is believed that he has been charged with “violating social order” and may face criminal prosecution.

Auction of Taxi Operation Certificates - drivers refused entry

On 10 January 2004, the Dazhou Government went ahead with the auction of 1,053 TOCs, ignoring the drivers’ protests. The auction was reported to have earned the government some 80,740,000 Yuan. The 12 January edition of the Dazhou Evening News described the auction as; “based on law and governed by the principles of fairness, openness and justice.” Deputy Mayor, Li Zhicheng, was reported as saying that the "auction indicates that the reform of Dazhou’s public resources has moved a crucial step forward”. However, this “open, fair and just” auction was in fact guarded by some 100 riot police. Seven hundred exisiting TOC holders were refused entry into the auction. Despite the amount of revenue raised, the workers do not understand what objectives drive this so-called “reform” which will push out of work and into suffering, workers who have struggled hard to adapt to the new economic reality in China.

Three more protestors were also taken away by police on 10 January and detained for several days before release.

Background

Most of the taxi-drivers in Dazhou are retrenched workers from previously state-owned enterprises, migrant workers and migrants who have been resettled in Dazhou from areas affected by the Three Gorges Dam Project.

Five years ago each taxi and TOC cost approximately 200,000 Yuan. Most drivers or owners managed to gather the funds from retrenchment compensation from their old enterprises, or funds given to them for dam resettlement, as well as loans from relatives or banks. Every year the government charges each driver some 8,000 Yuan “usage Fee”, and each month, each taxi-company charges the drivers around 1,300 Yuan “membership fee”. At the moment, due to a poor economy in Dazhou there are some 1,063 [including 10 auctioned by the government after 2000] taxis and business for the drivers is rather slack.

In August 2003, the government also pushed forward a ruling which stated that older taxis must be replaced with new taxis. Many drivers are being forced to spend a further 100,000 to 150,000 Yuan to fulfill this requirement - which has led to a situation where most taxi-drivers in Dazhou are now deeply in debt. The latest policy canceling existing TOCs could see many drivers forced out of business or even deeper into debt through their efforts to find a further 100,000 Yuan or so for a new permit.

In interviews with CLB, protestors reiterated that they wanted to make sure their story was faithfully reported to the outside world and that they were not against the economic reforms as such, but were simply trying to keep hold of their livelihood. In talking to CLB, many drivers could not help weeping when they told their stories. One taxi-driver said she had already borrowed 100,000 Yuan from the bank, 40,000 from her father, 20,000 from her sister and 30,000 from her aunt. So far she had only managed to pay back half of the original bank loan and could not afford to borrow another 100,000 for a new TOC.

During the protests, drivers have told CLB that they have tried to be restrained – some drivers said they would rather commit suicide than carry out road-blocking tactics and others wanted to take the case to court instead. However, no local lawyer has been found that will dare to take on the case.

CLB called Dazhou Municipal Government for government views on the case, but officials refused to discuss the case in details. Officials commented that, “sacrifices must be made during reforms”. Government staff also told CLB that the strikers were “just making trouble”, and announced that “no matter what complaint they let loose, it will be dealt with by the local government” [and resolved in favour of the local government].

The drivers meanwhile have confided in CLB that they will not give up their struggle without a fight, as one day they may succeed, and if they can succeed in Dazhou, it will mean a success for taxi-drivers nation-wide.


Note 1: The new policy will have a huge impact on both taxi-owners and drivers. As both taxi’s and the TOCs are very expensive, generally a family may own the taxi and their family members work in shifts or rent it out some of the time to drivers who cannot afford buying one. If the government takes away one TOCs, it may affect several families at the same time who all rely on the taxi as the main form of income. As the number of drivers is then higher than owners and the two are often interchangeable, the term “drivers” has been throughout this article.


21 January 2003