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Motorcycle taxis: 'crime prevention' and the social exclusion of migrant workers in China

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Once I took two girls from the Square. When we came to a crossroad, a truck was changing directions. I slowed down (my motorcycle), but one of the girls said her feet got hurt and she called 7-8 hooligans to beat me up. It was close to Huafeng police station. When the police came out, all of them ran away. I was beaten heavily and could not even stand up. The police did not chase those hooligans. An ambulance also came as my fellow countrymen called 110 (China’s police hotline). Doctors asked me to get it checked at the hospital, but we are migrant workers, how can I do that? Taking an ambulance will cost us 200 yuan ($30 or £16) per ride. We have no money! Later on, one of my fellow countrymen took me to hospital with his motorcycle. When we arrived, I felt a little bit better. So, I decided not to get checked. We migrant workers suffer a lot! Late that night, I found those who beat me up in front of an internet café, so I went to the police station and asked the police to catch them. The police were unwilling to go. They asked me if I could recognize them. I said “yes, I could definitely recognize them.” Then, the police said if they denied (the offence), what should the police do? This is how the police replied! Police officers are local people, when local people beat us up, the police will definitely support them. Here we have no way out if we are beaten up. (A narrative of a 46-year old migrant motorcycle taxi driver Uncle Dong).

In his classic work Rickshaw Boy (Camel Xiangzi, luotuo xiangzi, 骆驼祥子), first published in 1930s, the famous Chinese novelist Lao She revealed the life, hope, suffering, and desperation of a peasant who lost his land in the countryside and came to Beijing to make a living by pulling a rickshaw in the 1920s in China. The great rural-urban urban disparity in early twentieth century China drove peasants like Xiangzi to find opportunities in cities. For Xiangzi, “the city gave him everything. Even starving he would prefer it to the village… Even if you begged in the city you could get meat or fish soup. In the village all one could hope for was corn meal”.

In contemporary China, although rickshaw boys have disappeared, we do can see their modern counterparts: “motorcycle taxi driver” or “motorcycle boy” (搭客仔, dake zai). Uncle Dong is a typical representative of this group. Instead of using rickshaws, this new generation of Xiangzis uses motorcycles as taxis and these taxis are commonly used in the cities of the Pearl River Delta, China.

Nobody knows exactly how many people make a living by driving a motorcycle taxi in the cities of the Pearl River Delta, but the motorcycle is the most commonly used transportation vehicle in this area. A study in Tianzhi (pseudonym), where I used to work and later conducted fieldwork for years, revealed that 36 per cent of local residents and 34 per cent of migrant workers used it as their favored means of transportation in 2006. In Guangzhou before motorcycles were banned in 2007, it was estimated that there were as many as 100,000 motorcycle taxis. It is not an exaggeration to say that the cities in the Pearl River Delta have been moving on the wheels of motorcycles, and this is especially the case in booming towns such as Tianzhi.

Uncle Dong, a migrant worker in Tianzhi, came from Jiangxi province and worked in the Pearl River Delta for almost ten years when I met him in 2008. In the past, Uncle Dong worked in a furniture factory. But five years ago, he simply could not find a job in the furniture factories anymore as he reached 40 years of age, which is an age too old to work in a furniture factory. Following his fellow countrymen’s example, Uncle Dong took his motorcycle from his hometown Jiangxi to Tianzhi, and started driving a motorcycle taxi. However, the good times did not last long as the Pearl River Delta cities started to ban either non-local licensed motorcycles or all motorcycles since the year 2000 to prevent motorcycle snatch theft.

Migrant workers like Uncle Dong are excluded from the benefits which local residents can enjoy, such as health care, child education, housing benefits and pension because of China’s household registration system (hukou). They are strangers, outsiders, and discriminated against in urban China, although some of them have been living and working in those cities for many years.

In addition, when they become “old”, an age of around thirty-five to forty years, they are also excluded from the labour market, where a young and energetic body is required by global capitalism, as only a young body can bear the long hours, tediousness, and often toxic work in the factories of the Pearl River Delta, where China wins its title of “workshop of the world”.

Returning from the labour market, migrant workers like Uncle Dong started to make a living by themselves, driving a motorcycle taxi. However, the motorcycle ban policy enforced by local governments in the name of crime prevention tried to exclude him from this form of self-employment. Even when migrant workers are victimized by crime, the criminal justice system does not really protect them - members of this group are more often regarded as offenders than victims. In the rapid progress of China’s industrialization and modernization, people like Uncle Dong are becoming unwanted, and being what Zygmunt Bauman called “redundant” for modern society. They face multi-dimensional social exclusion in cities, including economic, political, and spatial exclusion as well as a lack of access to particular services, such as housing, medical provision, education, policing and security. What makes their situation alarming is that different dimensions of social exclusion correlate and reinforce each other, to become the source of mounting violence in urban China.

Dr. Jianhua Xu is the Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology and Honorary Fellow in Center for Criminology at the University of Hong Kong. He has recently finished his Ph.D thesis entitled “Motorcycle Taxi Drivers and Motorcycle Ban Policy in the Pearl River Delta”, which has been awarded two prestigious prizes: (1) Li Ka Shing Prize for the Best Ph.D thesis (2009-10) in the University of Hong Kong, and (2) 2011 Best Ph.D thesis from Hong Kong Sociological Association.

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