A mechanic waits by a container truck to be repaired near a cargo terminal… (Philippe Lopez, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Beijing and Shanghai — Some truckers serving Shanghai's largest container port are back on the job, ending a work stoppage to protest rising costs as China grapples with its worst inflation in more than 2 1/2 years.
The brief strike, which was started Wednesday by haulers angry over increasing diesel prices and port fees, appeared to be winding down after city officials over the weekend agreed to slash some fees. Still, it highlights a major challenge for Chinese authorities in maintaining social stability at a time when average Chinese are struggling with the soaring cost of food, fuel and shelter.
The nation's consumer price index, which gauges inflation, hit a 32-month high in March, up 5.4% from a year earlier.
"We call inflation over 5% 'vicious inflation,' " said Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of sociology at Renmin University in Beijing. "It's the biggest threat to the government."
On Monday, trucks could be seen returning to the harbor in the northern section of Shanghai. A massive police presence remained and a roadblock was set up to identify vehicles and pedestrians entering the port. Protesters on foot could be seen down the street on the other side of the checkpoint.
Truck drivers waiting outside said they were unsure what effect the government's concessions would have, especially with diesel prices at record highs and other expenses continuing to climb.
"Our monthly fee [to the trucking company] is getting more expensive; the price of oil is getting more expensive; the cost of living is getting more expensive. And all this pressure builds up and ends up on us," said a trucker who gave only his last name, Xu.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao likened inflation to a tiger that's hard to cage after its been released.
To tackle the problem, central planners have issued price controls, raised interest rates, hiked bank reserves and launched affordable-housing programs. Still, prices for necessities continue to rise throughout the country.
Whether the truckers' actions lead to copycat protests is unclear. Government-controlled news media have not mentioned the protests and Internet searches produced no results on some search engines.
A strike by workers seeking better wages at a Honda Motor Co. plant in southern Guangdong province last summer served as a catalyst for other factory demonstrations around the country.
Chinese authorities were already on high alert after weeks of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that have prompted calls for "Jasmine" rallies to promote democracy in China. Police have detained dozens of lawyers and activists and have also turned their attention to churches not sanctioned by the government.
China raised the price of fuel by more than 5% on April 7 to keep pace with global prices that had hit a 30-month high at the time.
In 2008, a jump in fuel prices also sparked a protest among taxi drivers in the southwestern city of Chongqing. Officials eventually agreed to concessions to resolve that dispute.
Not all the truck drivers in Shanghai were convinced that the recent demonstration would amount to any positive change for a profession that requires grueling hours and a heavy financial investment.
"The work stoppage is useless," said Wang Dingwei, a 52-year-old driver. "We stop driving our trucks and I stop making any money."
Wang, who has been driving trucks for 30 years, finally saved enough money to buy his own truck three years ago and he watched proudly as the blue cab of the truck was getting washed not far from the protest site.
Wang said that although he owns his own truck, he takes home only about $30 from a day's haul.
"If you work hard, it's possible to turn your struggles into happiness," he said.
Pierson reported from Beijing. Hilgers, a special correspondent, reported from Shanghai.