More than 5 000 taxi drivers Xining, a city in the western province of Qinghai, went on strike during the night of Saturday the 13th of June over new licensing regulations.
This was followed the next day with a sit-in protest in front of the municipal government headquarters attended by several hundred people, who dispersed at 3pm when officials promised to address the issue. However, although the number of strikers apparently halved on Sunday, protests have continued, with a second sit-in on Monday of a similar size to the first.
As of Tuesday the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that more than 150 taxis were still on strike, while taxis in neighbouring Ping’an County joined the strike. Others had resumed service but only after removing lights and covering license plates, and many carried a police officer on board, apparently in case of attacks by those who remained on strike.
The drivers’ anger was triggered by a report in the local Xihai Metropolis News which Friday reported a new regulation as saying that the provincial government would cut their license periods from 12 years to eight. This would mean most of their licenses would expire now or in a year and "After eight years, the drivers' operating rights in Xining will be taken back to the taxi companies and redistributed."
Xining has 5,110 taxis managed by five firms but 90% are privately owned. Drivers currently pay these firms a fee of 600 yuan (US $87) per month, but were reported to fear that with the new regulation they would have to pay high rental fees to the taxi companies if they wanted to continue operating.
"Who will have the cab operating rights in eight years or 12 years, drivers or the taxi companies?" One cab driver was quoted as saying in anger.
"Most drivers are peasants or laid-off workers," said a 30-something woman driver who declined to be identified.
"We spent 150,000 yuan on the license and at least 50,000 yuan on the car, but make 1,000 yuan a month at most. When the license expires, it would mean most of our money was spent for nothing."
Deputy county chief Ma Yuxiang, however, said the government never charged drivers for a license. "It could be under-the-table deals reached between new and old taxi drivers," he said.
Such "under-the-table deals" were common in the county, as most taxi drivers Xinhua interviewed complained about the high cost of licenses.
Yuan Fuyu, director in the transportation department of the provincial communication administration, Monday called the report "incorrect and misleading." He said the shorter period would only apply to new licenses, and that existing drivers would have unspecified advantages in renewing their licenses.
But some people interviewed by Xinhua, including a few staff members from local governments in Qinghai, agreed that the policy was ambiguous and might be hard to understand. The newspaper's deputy chief editor Li Jun said the government was shifting the responsibility to the media. "The government is trying to make us a scapegoat for its improper policies," Li told Xinhua.
There was no indication that the policy would be changed. Local taxi drivers were being asked to sign a guarantee to stop striking and return to work. Those who don't agree face losing their operation rights, one driver said.
Most striking drivers are demanding "permanent operating rights", or a renewal of their licenses to at least 30 years.
Their demand, however, was interpreted as an attempt to "privatize" the industry, which was not possible at least for the time being, an official in charge of transportation said.
"There's no such practice in China and it's not possible for Qinghai to take the lead," said Yuan, while Ma called it: “completely out of the question," though "there might be a chance to renew their licenses for a few years.”
Police detained 35 people who had "taken the chance to make trouble," said Huang Shujiang, vice head of the Xining public security bureau.
On the heels of the strike in Xining, there were taxi drivers' protests in other parts of Qinghai.
According to local officials, 228 taxis went on strike Monday afternoon in the Datong Hui and Tujia Autonomous County, which is some 65 km from Xining. The local government assured them in an open letter that no new measures were being taken and asked them to return to the road.
China has seen a wave of strikes by taxi drivers, with the latest action following strikes across the country late last year when drivers in cities including Guangzhou, Hainan, Chongqing and Sanya demanded changes to high operating fees, costly traffic fines and other working conditions.
Meanwhile on Monday in an unconnected protest, furniture makers in Nankang in the eastern province of Jiangxi blocked traffic and overturned police cars in a protest against a new tax they claim places too heavy a burden on their businesses.