Nine men sat in a circle playing a loud card game on a makeshift table pieced together from a pile of newsprint. It was a hot June day in an industrial suburb in central China. The men sat in the shadow of three 60-foot trucks half loaded with bales of dried tobacco. They slammed their cards down, yelling and laughing in crescendos of anticipation until one winner swept away the cards and the game began again.
A world away from China’s booming coast, this group of men is part of an under-acknowledged engine of economic growth—the millions of owner-operator truckers who haul basic goods like vegetables and logs around the country. While China’s high-speed rail development has captured the imagination of Western observers, trucks continue to carry the vast majority of China’s goods. In rapidly developing central China, most are carried by owner-operators—individuals from the countryside who buy a truck and contract out their services.
The men playing cards were preparing to haul three truckloads of dried tobacco 1,200 miles to Shanghai. I joined them as part of my personal journey through central and southern China on trucks to learn about their daily lives. We waited for two days before leaving; it had been raining, and the factory had no indoor loading area to keep the tobacco dry. None of the drivers knew when they would set off or arrive.
Their lives are defined by uncertainty. Each truck is a two-man microenterprise, driving straight from departure to arrival, switching off driving and sleeping. Gas station queues, mechanical failures, and endless toll booths can delay drivers by hours or even days. On the road, they play cat and mouse with corrupt police, sometimes spending whole afternoons waiting at gas stations for the sun to set so they can pass through checkpoints without offering mandatory bribes. A short trip can easily turn into a multi-day journey.
Rising competition for loads has given factories the leeway to hire drivers and make them wait for days like we had. The squeeze has forced drivers to overload their trucks and skimp on maintenance. Barely able to break even, each engages in a high-stakes balancing act, pushing his vehicle as far as possible without breaking down.
Given the circumstances, most drivers believe they are stuck in a losing industry with no way up or out. “Fines are heavy, and the price of shipments is low,” one driver told me. “There’s nothing I can do. It’s the country’s problem.”
Indeed, the plight of these drivers is the country’s problem. While the government invests in showy bullet trains, drivers lack resources to maintain their vehicles, mechanisms to contract loads in advance, and leverage in negotiations. Investing in owner-operators so they can adopt new technologies, grow their businesses, and consolidate into fleets will be critical to developing the industry into a modern and efficient transport system.
For now, uncertainty in the lives of drivers translates directly to uncertain development in central China, the country’s next frontier.