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My Daughter Calls Me “Ghost Daddy”

The life of a taxi driver in China.

On the morning of April 12, 2006, a young taxi driver died suddenly in his taxi, leaving behind two young children, his wife, and two elderly parents. According to his co-workers, the man had been in good health and had worked at least 12 hours a day. They could not believe that he had died so suddenly.

Only 10 days before, another taxi driver from Miyun County died a sudden death while driving customers. He had been on the job for less than a year.

At least seven such sudden deaths of taxi drivers have occurred in Beijing in the past two years, according to incomplete statistics.

A veteran taxi driver expressed his grave concern: "Every time I hear about a sudden death due to a heart attack, I feel a sharp pain in my chest. I fear that it may strike me next."

Last year, physical examinations were conducted on more than 200 taxi drivers in Beijing. The results were shocking: 40 percent of them suffered from enlarged prostate gland problems; 38 percent had high blood pressure; 32 percent were overweight, and 31 percent had high cholesterol. Less than two percent were completely healthy.

What is the life of a typical taxi driver in China? Here is one driver’s story:

"I share a car with my wife. One of us runs the day shift, and the other the night shift, so the car is never idle. My wife gets up every day at 4 a.m. and runs the early shift; I take over the car at noon and work until 2 a.m. or later. As a result, I suffer from all kinds of diseases, such as enlarged prostate gland, stomachache, and protrusion of intervertebral disc.

"My wife has a blood circulation problem in her brain and often feels dizzy. One day after she dropped off a customer, she was hit by a strong dizzy spell and could not drive the car anymore. She had already passed out on the steering wheel by the time the ambulance arrived.

"It cost us more than 2,000 yuan (US$249) for the hospital visit and prescription. My wife was so upset about the cost that for several days, she worked well past noon, trying everything to drive more customers. Now she carries medicine with her whenever she’s behind the wheel.

"Ever since that incident, we’ve not dared to see the doctor even when we got sick. It’s simply too expensive to visit the hospital. We have to endure and suffer. The revenue quota set by the company cannot be missed.{mospagebreak}

"When my stepdaughter was little, she couldn’t understand the situation. She would ask around on the quiet: ‘Is he a ghost? He sleeps during the day and gets out at night.’

"This has been a standing joke among our families. Even to this day, she sometimes still jokingly calls me ‘Ghost Daddy,’ which should be interpreted as ‘Ghost-like Daddy’ because I look awful.

"She constantly complains: ‘Other kids always do things with their parents, going on a trip or playing in the park. But you spend all your time in the taxi. I can only picture our family outings in my school essay.’

"I know my kids are not happy with me. Since my wife and I became taxi drivers, we have not had dinner with our two kids together even once. My parents are over 80 and still pretty healthy. I have no time to take care of them, so they have to fend for themselves. My mother has bound feet. Whenever I think about her standing and tottering on her small feet, cooking and doing laundry, I always feel sad and am in tears.

"Over the years, we’ve run into all kinds of people. From time to time, there are those who, for various excuses, refuse to pay the full amount or anything at all. It happens too often to remember every case.

"Still, this is nothing compared to robbery. One time, I drove two customers to their destination. The one in the passenger’s seat handed me a 100 yuan (US$12) bill. I could tell at first look that it was counterfeit, but I did not dare to say that. Instead I said: ‘Sorry. But I don’t have any change. Can you pay me in smaller bills?’

"I was not comfortable with the looks on their faces, so I said, ‘Never mind. It’s a short ride anyway. Don’t worry about the money.’

"There was a public restroom nearby. After they got out of the car and went into a side alley, I parked my car and went to the restroom. When I came out, I was surprised to see these two men waiting outside, each holding a brick. Next I felt a wave of dizziness and everything went dark.

"When I woke up, my cell phone and 700 yuan (US$87) in cash were gone. My driver buddies later told me that I was a lucky guy. At least my car was still there, and my injury was minor. Compared to those who had their cars hijacked and were killed, I was pretty lucky.

"Although the price of fuel is getting higher and higher, the company’s revenue quota is fixed. The only variable is our driving hours. It’s very common to see drivers working under extreme fatigue.{mospagebreak}

"Now my biggest dream is to drive an unmarked car so there would be no pressure to pay the company. After paying for fuel, the rest of the money would go into my own pocket. Nowadays there are too many unmarked, or illegal, taxis. Just look around the entrance of each subdivision and the long-distance bus stations, and you’ll see how many unmarked taxis there are in Beijing."

So now you know what’s on a taxi driver’s mind. He’d rather drive an unmarked car than a legal taxi.

According to statistics, there are as many as 260 taxi companies in Beijing, employing close to 100,000 drivers, 90 percent of whom live on the outskirts of Beijing. On average, these people work over 14 hours a day and go back home two to three times a month. They are the major breadwinners of the household.

With gas prices continuing to rise and concern over their health, taxi drivers are becoming more and more discontent with company revenue quotas. Almost all of them think that the quotas are too high and want them to be lowered. Most of them also believe that the majority of the taxi companies do not care about the welfare of the drivers. Physical exams and benefits are out of the question.

Yet what the drivers resent the most are the various fines that the taxi companies impose on them. Each major taxi company has a rule that if a driver is fined by the police for a traffic violation, the company will impose an additional fine. The amount ranges from 40 percent to 100 percent of the police fine. This is to "reinforce the discipline of the taxi drivers," says the company. But many believe that this is extortion in disguise.

It is estimated that companies typically collect 70 percent of a driver’s income as their revenue quota. In other words, companies make a windfall without doing anything. The companies can collect such high quotas because the drivers do not have much negotiation power. They have to accept their company’s harsh terms. In order to meet these terms, the drivers have to work long hours before they can make any money.

The bottom line is: Taxi drivers work harder than coal miners. Their job forces them to work under constant pressure and fatigue. The demand on their physical and mental strength is unparalleled.

Why can’t the revenue quota be lowered?

A hearing on adjusting taxi fares was held on April 26. An adjustment in taxi fares would have a direct impact on most residents in Beijing. It would have an even greater impact on the 100,000 taxi drivers. Yet, how many of these drivers were invited to the hearing?{mospagebreak}

On May 20, for the first time in six years, Beijing’s taxi fare was increased from 1.6 yuan (US$0.20) to two yuan (US$0.25) per kilometer after the four-kilometer base. But few drivers were optimistic.

On the surface, fare adjustment seems to increase drivers’ income. However, the rapidly improving city bus and subway systems provide customers with transportation alternatives. With the current taxi idle rate at above 50 percent, higher fares may result in fewer people taking taxis, or pushing more passengers into illegal taxis, whose number is estimated at 70,000. That outcome would make things even harder for taxi drivers.

Lao She (1899-1966), a famous Chinese playwright and author of humorous, satirical novels and short stories, is perhaps best known for his story "Camel Xiangzi" or "Rickshaw Boy," in which he traced the fall and ruin of a Beijing rickshaw puller named Xiangzi.

Xiangzi was from the countryside. The dire conditions there forced him to move to the city, where he dreamed of establishing a new life through his honest and hard labor. He tried all sorts of odd jobs and in the end settled on pulling a rickshaw. Although he had left the farmlands, he was still a farmer at heart. He was used to hard physical labor and longed to own a rickshaw cart as reliable as the land.

The city of Beijing seemed to offer Xiangzi an opportunity to fulfill his dream—buying his own cart and being his own boss. After three years of hard work and saving, Xiangzi finally bought his own cart, only to have it stolen less than six months later. But Xiangzi was not ready to give up his dream. He had his doubts, wavered at times, but always managed to pick himself up and try again. In the end, Xiangzi’s struggle was met with defeat. He never fulfilled his dream and died one snowy night.

In China today, how many Xiangzis are chasing their dreams, driving a taxi days and nights?

Helen Chou is a freelance writer based in New York.