DAZHOU, China -- The first time Liu Yu tried going to Beijing, she didn't make it very far. Police in this quaint river city in western China boarded her train just a few stops after it departed, found her in a window seat in a crowded car and demanded she disembark.
For the next four days, the officers detained her at a police station, interrogating her about her trip, she recalled. But Liu, the wife of a taxi driver and a soft-spoken mother under normal circumstances, was defiant.
Liu Yu and her husband, Liu Feng, spent their life savings to buy a taxi permit in Dazhou, China. When the city decided to revoke all permits and require cabbies to buy new ones, they were among the hundreds who fought back.
(Philip P. Pan -- The Washington Post)
She told them she was angry about a plan to revoke all taxi permits in Dazhou and force cabbies to buy new ones. Like many others, she and her husband had gone into debt and spent their life savings to buy a permit. She was going to Beijing to appeal the city's decision at the highest levels of the government.
The police officers asked: How many others were going? Who was organizing them? Liu refused to answer. They eventually gave up and released her with a warning to stay home.
Two days later, Liu was on another train to Beijing, where she joined about 100 other Dazhou cabbies and their relatives. "We carried great hope in our hearts," she said, recalling that day in December 2003. "We believed that the central government would help us, that the heavens in Beijing must be bright."
But nearly a year later, Liu and the cab drivers of Dazhou are a dejected lot, and the faith in the ruling Communist Party that brought them to Beijing has been shattered. One government agency after another has ignored their pleas, and police in the capital have herded them onto buses and shipped them home twice. Several drivers ended up spending time in jail.
The Dazhou cabbies were trying to overturn a city decision they considered unjust, using channels the party itself had endorsed. Their long, futile struggle illustrates the difficulties ordinary Chinese face when they attempt to influence even minor public policy decisions in the world's largest authoritarian system. It also shows how the myriad demands of a society enjoying growing economic and personal freedoms are testing the Communist Party's rigid political structure.
Under the leadership of President Hu Jintao, the party has said it needs to be more responsive to the public if it is to preserve its monopoly on power. At the same time, it has ruled out democratic reform and instead sought to improve governance by encouraging citizens to assert their rights via party-run courts, media and, most recently, public hearings.
But these institutions remain weak -- the cab drivers tried and failed with all three. As a result, Chinese who have grievances against local officials often take a course that is an age-old tradition in China: They shangfang, or travel to the capital for an audience with higher authorities. In ancient China, they petitioned the emperor. Today, they petition the Communist leadership.
The party uses a bureaucracy of what it calls "Letters and Visits" offices to handle these appeals, but these offices do little more than transfer complaints to local governments, collect statistics and pressure petitioners to go home. A recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that only 0.2 percent of all petitioners actually succeed in getting their complaints addressed.
Yet judging by the crowds camped outside Letters and Visits offices in Beijing, as well as the official statistics available, people are petitioning the party in ever-growing numbers, by the millions if not tens of millions annually. This tide reflects an increasing willingness by citizens to defend their stakes in China's rapidly changing economy and to assert rights the party has guaranteed them, at least in its rhetoric.
The story of the Dazhou cabbies is an example of what happens when such aspirations collide with reality. This account is based on multiple interviews with more than a dozen cab drivers and their relatives, most of whom expressed fear of arrest but agreed to be identified by name, as well as with several others involved in the events.
The First Blow
The cabbies of Dazhou were a diverse bunch -- laid-off workers, demobilized soldiers, rural migrants -- but they had all adapted to the economic changes sweeping China and seized an opportunity. After saving, borrowing and doing a little research, they bought cars and taxi permits in this city of 350,000 in the mountains of Sichuan province, 800 miles southwest of Beijing.
The permits, purchased from drivers getting out of the business, cost about $10,000 each, the equivalent of several years' income for most. But they were cheaper than permits in other cities and carried no expiration date. The cabbies saw a good investment, and with hard work most were earning enough to make a decent living. Many had hired others to take on shifts, and some had invested in additional cars and permits.