The Electric Camel

Workers who support society are both hated and loved. Do they help or get in the way? One thing’s for sure, society needs these hardworking individuals.

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They disrupt traffic as they zip and careen through streets, narrow lanes and even onto sidewalks. They are the vehicular avatar of the modern economy. In China’s cities, a rising middle class delights in the convenience of these wheeled workers one day and bemoans them as an urban blight the next.

The year is 1920 and the subject of controversy is the swelling numbers of rickshaw pullers clogging the streets of Beijing, Shanghai and the other rapidly developing urban areas in China.

It could just as easily describe the relationship that many of China’s city dwellers in the present have with delivery vans and shuttles that are now the backbone of the Chinese e-commerce revolution. The delivery courier has become the modern-day analog of Luotuo Xiangzi, the character Lao She made famous in his 1937 novel, Rickshaw Boy.

Today, the rickshaw is a thing of the past. Even the “rickshaw pullers” who troll tourists around popular sites are driving motorized trishaws. Originally invented in Japan in the 19th century (where it was known by its Japanese pronunciation jin riki sha) and popular throughout China in the early 20th century, the rickshaw gave way to new modes of transport as well as campaigns by modernizers who felt the human-powered vehicles were at odds with a new Chinese modernity struggling to take hold during the Republican Era.

Unable to organize with little leverage, drivers are forced to operate their vehicles at unsafe speeds and in violation of recent regulations designed to protect the public and the drivers themselves. Rickshaw pullers a century ago faced similar challenges.

Times have changed, but the pressure of urban migration that draws legions of semi-skilled workers to the cities in search of economic opportunities has not. Instead of a rickshaw, it’s an electric cart, but the customer is still king. Impatient urbanites have grown habituated to the instant gratification of quick deliveries, but resent having to share the roads with the ubiquitous electric carts of the couriers zipping packages and take out around China’s metropolitan areas.

In an article published late last year, The New York Times called it a “smoldering class war being waged on the streets of Beijing.”

Like their Republican-era predecessors, today’s delivery drivers face discrimination from urban residents who blame rural migrants for a myriad of problems from traffic gridlock to litter to crime. The quasi-legal status of these migrant workers—few of whom have a resident permit for the city in which they work—means that the drivers have little recourse in disputes with their companies or customers.

In Lao She’s novel, the protagonist, nicknamed “Camel,” is a hardworking and strong young man eking out a precarious living on the margins of Beijing society. His plans constantly go awry as he finds himself the victim of fate and dishonest characters. Mostly though, he is victimized by a society, which privileges urban elites over rural migrants. It is a colorful, but ruthless Beijing in which “Camel” toils, where the bonds of community have been dissolved in a solvent of rapid modernization. Social status and material wealth are the only things that matter.

China is once again in an era of great social and economic upheaval. New technologies and business models offer greater convenience and the promise of a better life for consumers. To satisfy demanding customers, companies are asking more of their workers. Drivers work seven days a week often during ten-hour shifts and flexible work contracts allow companies to avoid having to provide social benefits.

While couriers can earn over 10,000 RMB a month, a system of fines and penalties for late deliveries chip away at salaries, which are already barely enough to cover the cost of living in expensive cities like Shanghai or Beijing.

Unable to organize with little leverage, drivers are forced to operate their vehicles at unsafe speeds and in violation of recent regulations designed to protect the public and the drivers themselves. Rickshaw pullers a century ago faced similar challenges.

Despite public prejudice and abysmal working conditions, a steady flow of rural-urban migration meant that there was always another driver willing to take over a route or cart should somebody quit or get fired for complaining. Foreign missionaries established the “Shanghai Mission for the Ricsha Men” in 1913 to see to the welfare of the rickshaw pullers in that city. Today’s couriers are mostly on their own.

While municipal governments are trying to enact new policies to better regulate the sometimes chaotic world of urban delivery drivers with mixed success, ultimately, it will come down to what price people are willing to pay for convenience.

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