Blast from the Past: A chauffeur complains to Chairman Mao

Most complaints about life in Beijing revolve around two topics: pollution and traffic. As anyone will tell you, there is too much of both. According to The Economic Observer, this September is supposed to have the worst traffic on record. Moreover, both are seen as relatively recent phenomenon. After all, the thinking goes, there weren’t that many cars on the streets of Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s.

Viewing the early period of the People’s Republic of China as one devoid of cars obscures the larger story of urban management and the problems of traffic in general as the Chinese Communist Party went from being a primarily rural-based organizaiton to an increasingly urban-centered one. Beijing in the 1950s had buses, trolleys, cars and bikes and people vying for space on crowded avenues and, the archives show, lots of driving on the wrong side of the road and without a license.

At the time a lot of the  people driving cars were essentially government chauffeurs, ferrying leaders around the city. This should have been a great gig, with no small amount of perks. But just a few years after the founding of the PRC, a couple of drivers were sick of the long hours and crappy work conditions and did what they thought was logical: write a letter of complaint to Chairman Mao. Buried in the Beijing Municipal Archives, the letter provides a fascinating angle into the early PRC.

Though the note begins with a number of formalities and assurances that chauffeurs don’t mean to complain, they do feel that their work rate makes them age prematurely (weilao xianshuai 未老先衰),  takes away time with their family and, in a calculated appeal, deprives them of opportunities to study Marxist-Leninist thought. Noting that some government bureaus (danwei 单位) have established a work schedule that allowed drivers to rest and have days off, most drivers attached to different bureaus do the equivalent of 60 days of work in one month. To them, starting and finishing work, did not exist. They were always on the clock The most pressing problem was at night, when leaders and officials had long dinners with uncertain end times, and the drivers had nothing to eat and dared not leave. On these occasions and others like it, when a number of officials gathered together, it was common, the author insisted, for a group of drivers to gather by their cars and voice their dissatisfaction. Though leaders always told drivers their jobs were quite good, the chauffeurs themselves disagreed, believing that the most menial of manual laborers bricklayers (niwaiang 泥瓦匠) and those who cleaned out toilets actually had it better than drivers.  At least they got time off to rest and study. This overwork, he argues, causes health problems in the drivers, especially fevers and dizziness, that impairs their ability to do their job, as was reportedly the case at the end of April when an exhausted driver ran into two people in Xizhimen, killing one. To remedy these problems that touch on both worker moral and public safety, the author suggests adding more workers and splitting up and day and night shifts.

Mao never saw the letter and it was sent to a number of different ministries for further deliberation and research.

So, as the city gets ready for national day on October 1, and surely another horrific weak of traffic, remember that complaints about driving in Beijing are not solely a development of the last twenty years.

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