What is it like to join this invisible army?
AROUND FIVE in the morning is the most lethal time on China’s motorways, says a transport-industry veteran. The peril comes from long-distance lorry drivers, whose vehicles may have been rolling for days, pausing only for fuel and the rest stops required by law: 20 minutes every four hours, with no daily limit on driving. As dawn breaks, a long-haul trucker may be munching sunflower seeds and sipping cold tea to stay awake, while a driving partner dozes on a bunk bed. To help that partner sleep, the windows may be closed. The only sound may be the tinny tones of a satellite-navigation device. Such drivers “are like ticking bombs, you don’t know if they are awake or asleep,” says the veteran, adding that as a result wise travellers avoid highways until after seven.
If that makes drivers sound a bit unloved, the reality is sadder. Many Chinese do not think about long-haul lorries enough to be scared of them. China’s 30m lorry drivers are vital but invisible. Their toil helped the country become a manufacturing juggernaut. It is now feeding a consumer-spending boom, as middle-class Chinese order anything from a sofa to a selfie-stick with a tap on a smartphone, for express delivery at cut-price rates. This explosion in mobility, involving the creation of a vast highway network and a high-tech logistics industry in less than a generation, has brought Chinese truckers neither fame nor respect. When America and western Europe experienced similar transport booms in the 20th century, popular culture made folk heroes of long-distance drivers—brawny, taciturn types who prefer to brave blizzards than obey a foreman on a factory floor. Hollywood made films about wisecracking, heartbreaking truckers outsmarting policemen and other authority figures. Country singers recorded tributes like the hit of 1975, “Convoy” (“Ain’t nothin’ gonna get in our way”). Soon after becoming president Donald Trump invited truckers to the White House, climbed into a big rig and blasted its air horn, burnishing his blue-collar rebel credentials.
In contrast, China’s rulers are wary of authority-flouting loners. Greeting scooter-riding delivery workers in Beijing before the Chinese new year, President Xi Jinping offered them a thoroughly collective compliment, beaming that they were “busy as bees”.
Chaguan recently cadged a ride from Liu Chengbing, a 43-year-old lorry driver, as he began a run from Beijing to a chemicals plant in the coastal city of Jiaxing. Back in the 1990s drivers had a pretty high status, Mr Liu recalled. They earned good salaries, though most had only a middle-school education. They could make a still better living if they bought their own lorry and then touted for jobs, perhaps by handing out cards at factories. Self-employment is harder today. Margins are shrinking and repeat deliveries go to logistics firms. In June 2018 caravans of drivers used social media to organise nationwide protests about fuel prices, low incomes and the market dominance of a few, Uber-like load-finding apps.
Mr Liu sometimes takes his wife along in the cab to help with navigation, parking, food and accounts—a common practice. Like so many migrant workers, Mr Liu lives in the east, near Hangzhou, leaving his sons, 16 and 12, with their grandparents in rural Sichuan. Mr Liu can earn over 10,000 yuan ($1,400) a month. At least as a specialist driver of dangerous goods his hours are limited, and night-driving banned. Asked why lorry drivers are not heroes in Chinese films, he snorts, adjusting the brace that he wears for a painful back. “When I load stuff at the factory, the security guard sort of orders me around. That shows you our status,” he says. Near Cangzhou, south of Beijing, a traffic jam allows Mr Liu time for a swift roadside pee, a cigarette and a spot of kung-fu style high-kicking. He does not chat with nearby drivers. Truckers are not especially sociable, Mr Liu explains, back in the cab. One exception is on social media such as WeChat, where drivers share tips about bad traffic, good food and clean guesthouses. Some lorry drivers, including some of the roughtly one in 25 who are women, have built followings on Kuaishou, a video-sharing app. Mr Liu does not fear self-driving lorries taking jobs. “Maybe for smaller cars,” he muses. But for big lorries like his, hauling a tank of sulphuric acid plastered with warning signs, “you’re going to need a guy.”
A nationwide survey of the industry, published by the Social Sciences Academic Press in 2018, found that more than 71% of drivers own their vehicles, often after borrowing heavily. A big majority are from rural areas and are married with children. On average, drivers see their families once every 20 days. Asked if they would like their children to drive lorries, nearly 96% said no.
Rugged individualists with Chinese characteristics
Mats Harborn, a Beijing-based executive at Scania, a Swedish lorry-maker, has devoted years to promoting a Western-style “truck culture” in China, including driving contests that hail truckers as “heroes”. In part, this is to sell expensive imported lorries with fuel efficiency that makes them good value in the long run, but only if they are well driven. In part, Mr Harborn sees a broader need to help China develop a safe, sophisticated transport sector, rather than a “Wild East” industry plagued by overcapacity.
Imported lorries are mostly bought by big logistics firms, and give drivers bragging rights among their peers, says Harry Huang of Volvo Trucks, another Swedish firm. Their comfort and safety—including gadgets that brake automatically if they detect a sleepy driver—may help deal with the industry’s chronic recruitment problems, he suggests, standing on the sidelines of a Volvo driving contest in the southern province of Guangdong. One contestant, Shao Panpan, drives the same route all year, connecting Suzhou with Harbin, more than 2,300km to the north. Each leg involves four days of non-stop driving, shared with a partner. He likes the job, and does not mind sharing a cab for days on end. “The partner thing is like a marriage, you need to get along and compromise,” Mr Shao says. Still, round-the-clock driving is hard. “Our bodies wear out faster than other people’s.” He can expect little thanks.