Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cutting off Black Taxi’s Fingers

Sun Zhongjie, a company driver for a construction company in Shanghai, set off to pick up a co-worked getting off work on the night of October 14. Along the way, he was stopped by a man in the street who was shivering, said he had been waiting for 1 hour for a taxi, and was trying to get somewhere urgently. As the location was along his route, Sun agreed to take the man.

A key aspect of this, from my perspective, is that it occurred in the former Nanhui District of Shanghai, now absorbed into the increasing massive Pudong (with a population of over 4 million by the end of 2009). This is an area often called a “suburb” by geographers of China—it is far from the city center, and outside the “Outer Ring Road”. These areas are often sparsely developed, and have their own “district” taxis that are not allowed inside the Ring roads. Further, a license plate, which in Shanghai 2009 goes for over 30,000 yuan at auctions, is much cheaper if one buys one that is valid outside the Outer Ring only. That, plus a cheap QQ automobile, selling for about 20,000 RMB, allows one to operate a business as a “black” (illegal and unlicensed, not paying taxes) taxi driver. This occurs not only in Nanhui, but in Minhang, Songjiang, Zhabei, and other areas far from the center of “urban” Shanghai.

Another key aspect of the context for this incident is a current drive to eliminate black taxis before the World Expo by the Shanghai government. On the news nightly there are stories and reports about how black taxis clog the roads and are difficult to catch (since the passenger does not admit they are paying the driver, and the driver doesn’t admit he [mostly male] is being paid to drive.

Hence the method for catching black taxi drivers is to “fish” (diaoyu) for them. Typically, this means an enforcement officer will “hire” a taxi to take him somewhere, sometimes the traffic enforcement station, then pay the driver. After which, the officer arrests the driver and fines them 10,000 RMB.

On October 14, Sun was not a black taxi and did not solicit his rider. Instead, the passenger rode with Sun for a few kilometers, then threw money at him and took his keys. The company van was impounded in lieu of the fine.

Sun was distraught. At his dorm that night, to prove his innocence, he cut off his little finger.

The fallout has been a backlash against this type of “fishing” enforcement (it is literally fishing, 钓鱼, in Chinese but can be translated as entrapment in English).

Unmentioned, and in my mind more important, is unnecessary campaign to eliminate black taxis. In Shanghai, there are close to 50,000 taxis. The top five companies and their colors are Dazhong (aqua), Qiangsheng (yellow), Bashi (green), Haibo (blue), and Jinjiang (white). They are all owned by the local Shanghai government. There are also small company and individual proprietorship taxi companies. However, the taxis are concentrated in the city center—since center residents are wealthier, and there is more demand. The lack of sufficient transportation infrastructure and taxis in the “surburban” areas, outside the Outer Ring Road, outside the core urban area, leads to a need for black taxis.

Instead of satisfying this need, the campaign is targeted at eliminating the supply. This lead to the loss of Sun Zhongjie’s finger, as overzealous enforcement of something demanded by ordinary people and operated by hardworking black taxi drivers (mostly migrants) lead to a tragedy.

Background of story from China Daily:

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