SHUTTERSTOCK

China's truckers no longer kings of the road

Longform

The country's 30 million truck drivers may keep the blood of the economy flowing but new technology has them in a cruel logistical vice.

It was 5am in the Zhengzhou Expressway Service Area when the first rays of light, like a sharp sword, split the silent night sky. The air was filled with the chill of breaking dawn. The early morning fog, laden with dust, settled on the truck’s windshield, forming grey dewdrops. As most of the city still slumbered in the embrace of their warm comforters, the long day of a truck driver had already begun. Each driver prayed today would be an ordinary day and that he would be able to deliver his cargo safely and without incident.

The city of Zhengzhou, in Henan province, has been China’s most important highway hub since ancient times. It is located in the middle of the "Nine States", the legendary administrative division of ancient China. Today, Zhengzhou, population 10 million, remains the trade and logistics centre of central China, serving as a transportation hub for 10 provinces.

On this day, as dawn broke across the vast concrete parking lot of the Zhengzhou Expressway Service Area, hundreds of drivers slowly emerged from their truck cabs. Sui Guoping, a thin, bony old man, was one of them. His back, hunched over from a herniated disk, made him look much older than his close to 50 years.

There is a saying in China: The sound of a truck engine is the sound of 10,000 taels of gold.

To save money, Sui, like many truck drivers, slept in his truck. The crowded space, less than six square meters, was his "home". Many days, Sui would drive for up to 15 hours. One day stands out in his memory. He had pulled into the Zhengzhou Expressway Service Area at 1 am. After only four hours' sleep, he'd woken again, the gradually brightening sky acting as a giant natural alarm clock, silently reminding him that time was short and he needed to hurry. He had only two days to drive a truckload of chicken and duck meat from Shandong Province to Sichuan Province, 1880 kms away. On top of that, because he was transporting fresh meat, the truck's on-board cooling equipment was constantly running, costing him up to 30 yuan per hour. For Sui, time was real money, and he could not afford to waste it on sleeping. He went about his morning routine, filling a bucket with cold water and squatting on the ground to wash his face. He can still feel the biting wind of the late autumn day, evaporating the water from his skin, drawing the heat from his body, as the cold penetrated almost to the bone.

There was no time to stop and feel the cold. Time was money and each driver had tedious preparations to do before setting off. Unlike a car, a truck's brakes require water to cool them down, and, on a long steep descent, they were prone to fail due to high temperatures. Each morning Sui would cautiously check the condition of the truck’s brakes. This day was no different. He took his toolbox from the truck’s cab, crawling under the truck to carefully check that the truck's brake system was spraying water properly. Reassured the brakes looked good, he skilfully climbed up into the nearly two-metre-high cab. The truck roared to life like a roused beast but this day that began like every other would be no ordinary day.

Chasing his dream, literally

SUI Guoping was born in a rural village in Weifang, Shandong Province. His father worked in a steel factory, his mother was a housewife. They had five children, in the old way of thinking, that raising many children would provide for them in old age. This put a very heavy burden on a family which could have lived well. Sui's cousin, Sui Yanting, recalls: "When we were young, he was very smart and good-looking, and he was liked by the village. My parents even wanted to adopt him as a son."

In those days of material scarcity, children lacked recreational activities. Their favourite thing to do was to ride their father's bicycle through the leafy forest paths, before walking across a bridge to the road to see the big trucks. "That was the farthest we'd ever been," Sui Yanting says, "and there were very few trucks back then, maybe only one passing by in an afternoon. Every time a truck passed by, Guoping would get so excited that he would chase it for a long distance. When he came back, he would guess with us where the truck was going."

Sui Guoping says no-one cares about the plight of truckers. SUPPLIED

In 1989, when he was 22, his parents borrowed money from relatives and friends to buy Sui his first truck. It was the golden age of the trucking industry. In 1978, China had begun its economic reform with policies to open up its command economy. This led to the rejuvenation of state-owned enterprises and the emergence of flourishing private enterprises, built from scratch. At the same time, the development of the economy and trade led to an increasing demand for transportation, especially by trucks.

From 1978 to 1998, China's road-operated cargo vehicle fleet held steady at around 200,000, according to trucking organisation Zhang Ningning. There were not enough trucks to deliver all the goods needing transportation and no driver with a truck remained unemployed. Truck drivers were not only well-paid but had a high social status. There is a saying in China: "The sound of a truck engine is the sound of 10,000 taels of gold". An exaggeration perhaps but it also illustrated the high income of truck drivers at the time. In 1991, the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics reported the average annual wage for a Chinese worker was 6,300 yuan. Truck drivers were earning 10 times that amount.

Today, China has a huge trucking logistics network. The Chinese Truck Drivers Research Group estimates there are now more than 32.5 million registered trucks and more than 30 million truck drivers across China. The industry carries 76 per cent of the national freight volume.

Truck drivers ply the highways, keeping the blood of China's economy moving across the country. However, unlike the golden age, the trucking industry's supply of trucks is now greater than demand for them and the problem of excess road capacity has become more apparent. Truckers no longer earn 10 times the national average wage. Today, the average annual income of truck drivers is 78,000 RMB compared to the average worker's annual wage of 79,854 RMB.

When the brakes fail

“DRIVING a truck is a high-risk job,” says Sui Guoping, who drove for more than 30 years. His eyes are cloudy and yellow, his face a little lifeless. He is wearing a loose brown sweater, frayed at the cuffs, his back is hunched from the herniated disk he got from the decades spent behind the wheel. Sitting in his modest home in the Han Ting district of Weifang and looking much older than his 55 years, he slowly begins to recount the most frightening day of his driving life. At first light, after checking the brakes were working, he had pulled his truck out of the Zhengzhou Expressway Service Area, heading west. Four hours later, he was approaching Sanmenxia, which translates as the "Three Gates Canyons”. The dangerous mountainous section of road is renowned for its steep descents, sharp bends close to the cliff’s edge and heavy fog.

Before tackling the descent, he pulled over to the side of the road to check his truck’s brakes again. The weather was not great. It was almost noon; cloud covered the sun and the day seemed to be suddenly dark. The morning gale had eased and even though everything seemed calm, he wondered if that was the calm before the storm to come.

Sui Guo-ping recalled his heart was restless for no reason. After checking the truck once again, Sui stood by the roadside. With the long hours of driving, his waist had begun to hurt again. "I have a very bad herniated disc and I have a bad stomach. This is all due to long hours of driving and an irregular diet," he explained.

The tough working conditions for truck drivers receive little attention from wider society. A Survey Report on the Employment Status of Truck Drivers in 2021, showed 37 per cent of drivers worked an average of 12 hours or more per day. In addition, Workers' Daily has reported more than 86 per cent suffer from "occupational diseases". Although they are work-related injuries, it can be difficult to win compensation. Unlike traditional workers in state-owned enterprises and private enterprises, truck drivers are often at the edge of the system, lacking institutional and organisational protection. They have trouble with social security and worker protection.

A 2022 report by the China Truck Organisation claimed it was hard to set up work relationships with logistics companies and drivers did not have any social security rights or benefits such as pensions, medical care, or funds to pay for work injuries. The poor working conditions, an irregular daily lifestyle and the high risks associated with the profession made drivers more vulnerable to depression, according to academic research. For the long journeys, many relied on smoking to relieve loneliness and anxiety.

"We have to bear it. No one cares about us," Sui said, looking up at the sky with a frown on his face. He held a cigarette in his right hand, picking it up every now and then to take a puff.

He thinks back to that day on the Sanmenxia Expressway. The sky was getting cloudier but the rain was not yet falling. "I can't just stay and wait," Sui thought, then decided to take a gamble. The most challenging section of the expressway stretched for 50 kms. Sui’s truck was limited to a maximum speed of 50 km per hour on the mountain road. If it went well, Sui would be past the dangerous section before the rain fell.

He had only driven 12 kms when the rain began to fall, quickly becoming denser and faster. There were flashes of lightning reflected through the foggy air. Heavy rain pelted the truck's windshield, much faster than the wipers could handle, creating a misty haze that blurred Sui’s vision of the road.

A few long downhill stretches were coming up. Sui’s hands were firmly on the steering wheel, paying very spiritual attention to the road ahead. His concentration was intent, he remembered struggling to breathe evenly.

He slowed to half his speed but due to the heavy use of his brakes, the truck’s brake pads had overheated and begun to lose their traction. "Cannot stop," Sui recalled thinking, as the truck gained speed. He gritted his teeth and tried to keep himself calm. He relied on all his years of driving experience to hold the truck in a low gear to slow it down, pulling on the hand brake to assist the overheating brakes. It was not enough. He could only hope for an emergency braking lane ahead to help him stop the truck.

But fortune did not favour him. A landslide on the road ahead created a bank up on stationary cars and trucks. With only a few dozen meters to go, he had no choice but to leave everything to fate. To avoid crashing into the line of cars and hurting innocent people, Sui jerked the steering wheel hard on the slippery road. The truck skidded and flipped over, hitting two consecutive guardrails. With no airbags, Sui's head hit the steering wheel hard and then the side window. Fortune finally favoured him, with his truck coming to rest on the edge of the cliff.

On the positive side, he suffered just a few bruises. On the negative side, his truck was so badly damaged that it was almost a write-off. By the time he came to his senses, someone had pulled him from the truck. His body couldn't stop shaking. He couldn't even recall how it all happened.

"Not everyone is so lucky, that he wasn't seriously injured and that his truck was covered by insurance," said Gao Jianqi, an insurance officer. "There are many truck drivers who do not buy vehicle damage insurance, either because they are overconfident in their driving skills or because they are not well-off."

The cost of vehicle damage insurance for heavy trucks is more than 10,000 RMB (12 per cent of their annual income of 78,000 RMB). Some drivers, who are under financial pressure, opt to give it up.

That day on the Sanmenxia mountain changed Sui's life. He took a break from long distance trucking, at first opting to do occasional short-distance same-day round trips, then in 2018, he chose to leave the industry altogether, voluntarily downgrading his heavy-vehicle license. After more than three decades behind the wheel, experiencing both the highs of China’s golden trucking age and tougher times that followed, he stepped down from his cab for the last time.

While Sui Guoping chose to stop, others roll on.

The apps that kill us

Sui Yujie, younger brother of Sui Guoping, followed in his brother's footsteps and joined the trucking industry in 1996. On a September morning earlier this year, I find him at the cold chain logistics park in Linyi, the "logistics capital of China", in Shandong province.

It's five o'clock and the cold air reeks of truck exhaust and a fishy smell. Experienced truck drivers, standing together in silence, smoking cigarettes, have already parked their trucks at the row of hatch doors.

The drivers have been waiting here all night, ready to unload their cold cargoes. Sui Yujie has been on the road for over a week. His shoulders are stiff and he is slightly hunched over. He is wearing a crumpled, faded polo shirt, having neither the time nor the energy to make himself look presentable. His face is expressionless, and it is hard to tell whether he feels happy to be nearly finished with his work or angry with the logistics park staff for their tardy arrival.

About an hour later, the staff finally arrive, lighting up the whole warehouse. Suddenly, everything seems to come to life. After receiving a signal, the truck drivers run to their respective trucks, opening the rear cargo doors nimbly and quickly. Four or five sturdy warehouse men run over; no time for greetings and small talk. They jump straight into the rear cargo bay with the truck drivers and begin to move the goods.

Sui Yujie says truckers were fooled into adopting logistics apps.SUPPLIED

The forklifts buzz through the warehouse, swiftly moving pallets of goods into the white, smoky cold storage rooms. No one talks, they work like robots programmed to mechanically complete their tasks. After all the goods are counted and stored, Sui Yujie's work is done and his expression begins to relax. Though he cannot hide his exhaustion, he is no longer numb and tight. "It's time to go home," Sui Yujie says, "but I can't go back with an empty truck."

Sui Yujie opens a website called "Transport Man Man" to see if there is suitable cargo. He is not good at using electronic devices. He uses his right index finger to click on the phone screen, pausing with each click to think about where he should click next.

If Sui Yujie returns to his home base with an empty truck, the fuel cost and road tolls incurred on the return trip will greatly reduce his profit. So, he is more willing to carry goods at a lower price to offset those costs.

"Do you have goods to be transported on your return?" asks another driver. It has become the way truckers greet each other. "Not yet. Too many trucks are here. It is hard to get a high price," Sui Yujie replies.

Before websites like "Transport Man Man" existed, intermediaries known as "information departments" matched shippers and truckers. The truckers would pay 10 per cent of the freight charge as a brokerage fee. But in recent years, the Internet and capital investors set their sights on the trucking industry. The platforms initially used various incentives to attract truckers, however, as the platforms gradually replaced the "information departments", they began to take advantage of big data to reduce freight costs in areas where truckers are concentrated.

"We are all fooled by these apps, and they force us to kill each other," Sui Yujie says.

Guo Yandong, who entered the industry in 2009, says "I'm exhausted of the trucking industry. But we also have to keep working; otherwise, we won't be able to pay back the truck loans."

Many truck drivers take out big loans to enter the industry. A Sohu News report estimated 72 per cent of truck drivers borrow money to buy their trucks. The deals offering "zero down payment" and other low-threshold financial measures have resulted in the contradiction of more trucks than there are goods to carry, so that the disorderly competition in the market has become more serious. Heavy debt forces truck drivers to take orders at lower prices.

Sui Yujie holds the phone in one hand and rubs his other hand back and forth on his head, as if that will get rid of the worries of the moment. Finally, he decides to take the order. "I have no other choice; now the price of diesel fuel is ridiculously high. I have to accept the low transportation fees."

His truck roars back to life. Like his brother, Sui Yujie knows the road ahead may be full of hardships and dangers. Some drivers will choose to stay and some to leave. But whatever an individual trucker decides, the wheels of the trucks will still roll forward, criss-crossing China, never stopping.

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