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China’s truckers are struggling to survive as the freight industry faces shrinking profits, exploitative algorithms and Covid restrictions

By Jiang Zhiyu , Chen Weishan Updated Jul.1

Enforcement officers check the health status of truckers on a mobile health app at a checkpoint in a suburb of Tongling, Anhui Province, March 18

Zhang Li, a trucker who drove from Fujian Province in Southeast China, unloads her truck in Wuxi, East China’s Jiangsu Province, early April

Meng Yong has been stuck in Shanghai since March 29. Driving the 450-kilometer route between Wenzhou in neighboring Zhejiang Province and Shanghai for years, the 51-year-old trucker had the misfortune to arrive the day before the citywide lockdown.  

Unable to leave, Meng slept in his truck, living on instant noodles and occasional food deliveries from fellow truckers and friends. His dog, Hami, never would eat instant noodles. Now it does. 

For truckers who managed to leave Shanghai before the lockdown, life is not any easier. Many cities closed their borders to people coming from Shanghai and other virus epicenters. Zhu Wenqiang counts himself lucky. After delivering fruit from Hunan Province, Zhu left just before lockdown measures kicked in. However, he faced another fiasco as all highway exits in neighboring provinces were closed off. Zhu had to park his truck at a service station along the highway in Suzhou, neighboring Zhejiang Province and lived in his truck there about 20 days before he could leave in late April. 

Caught in Lockdown 
Meng and Zhu are just two among the thousands of truckers caught in limbo amid Covid-19 restrictions, struggling to earn a living in an industry already facing tremendous challenges.  

Trucking used to be an attractive career in China, promising high incomes and a life on the road. But those days are long gone. The rise of online platforms increased competition and cut salaries, while the pandemic further strains this vital industry to China’s supply chain.  

According to a survey of over 15,000 truck drivers by sociologist Shen Yuan from Tsinghua University, about half had gotten stuck on the road at least once due to Covid restrictions in March, while 8 percent said 10 times and 9.4 percent said they were stuck for a full week. After the strictest measures were launched in April, those numbers are likely to be much worse.  

For many of China’s truck drivers, the past two years have been difficult. Considered a high-risk occupation, truckers must test for Covid more frequently and face heavier restrictions.  

A major challenge is different regional policies, as many local authorities do not accept Covid PCR test certificates or travel clearances issued elsewhere. Zhang Li, a trucker who drives between East China’s Fujian and Jiangsu provinces said she was once tested five times in one day.  

“Every time I got off the highway, I had to test regardless of my previous test results,” Zhang said. “Every time, there’d be long lines to get on and off the highway, which is really time consuming.”  

Even when local authorities accept test certificates issued in another region, truckers have to keep their status current. Across China, PCR test results are only valid for 48 hours. “It often takes longer than 24 hours to get test results back, which means you only have a few hours before it expires.” Zhang said she is forced to take tests daily.  

Zhu Wenqiang said this year is the freight industry’s worst since he became a trucker in 2014. “My income fell 20 percent compared to last year, and 40 percent from the year before,” Zhu said, adding he has a mortgage and a son in middle school.  

According to Shen’s survey, 62 percent of self-employed truckers pay more than 6,000 yuan (US$885) in monthly truck payments, yet 35.7 percent of them earned less than half that in March. 

Platform Squeeze 
Even before the pandemic, life for China’s truck drivers was difficult. Wen Xiang, a sociologist at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, told NewsChina that the rise of apps and e-commerce has reshaped the entire trucking industry.  

While the adoption of big data, algorithms and cloud computing have greatly increased the industry’s efficiency, it has hurt truckers, who are mostly individual contractors with no strong union support.  

In 2018, two of China’s most popular truck services platforms, Yunmanman and Huochebang, merged to become the Full Truck Alliance, controlling 90 percent of China’s market share. Truckers are left with minimal bargaining power, and have to compete for orders online.  

Zhang Tao, a trucker from Wuhan, Hubei Province, told NewsChina that freight transport prices have been steadily decreasing. “In the past, a haul between Wuhan and Yichang (320 kilometers) would pay 1,600 yuan (US$236), but now, it only pays 800 to 900 yuan,” Zhang Tao said, adding that drivers are left to shoulder rising fuel prices and highway tolls.  

According to Shen, a common sentiment among truck drivers is that the group has become increasingly marginalized both economically and socially over the past two decades. In the 1990s when China first liberalized its economy, trucking was among the best-paid blue-collar jobs, with many earning more than 200,000 yuan (US$29,500) a year, higher than many white-collar workers.  

But after more than two decades, the income of most truck drivers has not increased along with China’s economic growth, sliding to less than 200,000 yuan. “We have a saying: ‘In the past, one truck could support the whole family, but now it requires a whole family to support a truck,’” Zhang Tao said.  

Drivers complain they are not as respected as other high-risk essential workers, such as medical professionals. “Because of the pandemic, there are now strong prejudices against us,” Meng Yong told NewsChina.  

For many drivers, the pandemic was the last straw. According to a report on the employment and status of truck drivers in 2021 conducted by the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing (CFLP), the number of truck drivers in China sharply dropped from around 30 million in 2018 to about 20 million in 2021. Fewer truckers means those still on the road must work longer hours to keep the industry’s wheels turning. 

Supply Chain Disruption 
Road freight is essential to China’s economy. According to China’s Ministry of Transport and China State Railway Group, more cargo was shipped by road than ship and railway combined in Q1 2022.  

Since the pandemic, many local governments have adopted very strict restrictions on cross-regional transport, with some resorting to shutting down highways that run through their jurisdictions.  

Gao Peng, CEO of Suyuan Tianxia, a logistics company in Suzhou, told NewsChina that under Shanghai’s strict lockdown measures, local authorities only issue travel clearances for essential goods, including food and pandemic-related items. “No permits were issued for carrying industrial goods,” Gao said. Many factories in the region, including Tesla and Volkswagen, were forced to shut down. According to a research article released by Song Zheng, an economist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Chen Qin, chief economist with industry consulting firm Shanghai Pulse Data Technology, spot truckload volume in Shanghai dropped by 85 percent in early April compared to March.  

Data from the Ministry of Transport on April 10 showed that 678 highway toll stations and 364 service stations in 16 provinces and municipalities were shut. According to the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing, the total volume of nationwide truck transport dropped by 25 percent in the fourth week of March. In April, China’s logistics performance index came in at 43.8 percent, down 4.9 percentage points from March, marking two consecutive months of contraction in the sector.  

The strict control measures that grounded many truckers also has led to a sharp increase in transportation costs. “Previously, the cost of sending a truckload from Suzhou to Kunshan, Jiangsu (55 kilometers) was between 1,000 and 2,000 yuan (US$147-$295), but it now costs about 7,000 to 8,000 yuan (US$1,032-$1,180),” Gao said.  

This increase eats away at the profit margins of many smaller manufacturers. About 30 percent of Gao’s clients have stopped making deliveries, while the rest continue just to maintain relationships with their customers.  

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the Purchasing Manager Index (PMI) of China’s manufacturing industry fell to 47.4 percent in April from 49.5 percent in March, data which indicates recession. The figures suggest the manufacturing sector recorded two months of contraction during the latest outbreaks. 

Meng Yong’s dog, Hami, in their truck, Minhang, Shanghai, April 15

Zhang Tao in his truck on his way from Wuhan to Shanghai, late March

Back to Normal? 
On April 11, the Ministry of Transport called for local transport authorities to quickly rectify the closure of highway service areas and toll gates to ensure access to highways.  

In a teleconference held on April 18, China’s Vice-Premier Liu He stressed that nucleic acid tests with a sampling interval of over 48 hours should be recognized across the country, and that drivers should not be restricted while waiting for test results.  

Since then, highways in most places have reopened. On May 11, Li Guoping, an official with the Ministry of Transport, said at a press conference in Beijing that all highways have reopened nationwide. By May 10, highway truck traffic increased by 26 percent compared to the same time last month, Li said. He stressed that free nucleic acid tests and better catering services for truck drivers should be offered around the country.  

As Covid cases fell in Shanghai, the city’s Vice Mayor Zong Ming said on May 16 that Shanghai will fully return to normal life and production by mid-June. Some of Shanghai’s subway and bus lines also began reopening on May 22. Truckers hope that restrictions on the trucking industry will be next.  

It will not be easy. By our press time, Meng Yong and his dog are still stuck in Shanghai. The only way for him to leave there now is to find a client who can apply for an official permit to go to a new destination. He can order food delivery now, but it also means higher living costs. 
Zhu Wenqiang has been helping his parents with farming since he finally returned to his hometown, Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, on May 9. He does not think the traffic is smooth enough for him to resume his business.