As the capital pushes toward modernity at breakneck speeds, Beijing’s most charming characteristics are becoming increasingly threatened. From the destruction of historic hutongs to the closure of decades-old restaurants, making a living in the capital is becoming more and more difficult. And the city’s rickshaw drivers are not immune.
With the rise of shared bikes and the increased enforcement of traffic laws, many rickshaw drivers are struggling to get by.
Although traffic laws pertaining specifically to rickshaws have long existed in the capital, they are now being enforced in ways they haven’t before. Police are cracking down on drivers for all sorts of infractions, from operating without licenses to driving in restricted areas.
By law rickshaws can only conduct business in places designated by the government, mainly around touristy lakes. However, it’s not uncommon for unlicensed rickshaw drivers to break the rules and risk hefty fines in order to make a living.
According to a rickshaw driver surnamed Li, the police crackdown on illegal businesses, rickshaws included, is making life in the capital more and more challenging.
“It’s devastating and inconsiderate. The government says they’re now cracking down on illegitimate businesses, but China has always been full of them. China has always had people selling on the streets and China has always had rickshaw drivers. Always,” Li, 40, said. “It’s the livelihood of so many people, and it’s part of our culture. They’re taking it away without compensation or arrangements for what we can do without rickshaw driving. There’s nothing we can do, though.”
However, the hyper-enforcement of traffic laws and the clamping down on illegal businesses aren’t the only things posing a threat to Beijing’s rickshaw culture. The rise of easy-to-use transportation options like Didi, electric scooters and shared bikes means that drivers are now seeing even fewer customers.
Despite the challenges, it’s still common to see rickshaw drivers pedaling lazily down Beijing’s streets, carting tourists around or rummaging up customers. It’s a sight not all that different than when rickshaws first appeared in the city nearly 150 years ago.
Rickshaws have a long history in Beijing and in China as a whole. They first appeared in China in 1873. Back then they were simple, two-wheeled carts that were literally pulled by “drivers.” As simple as they were, they became such a popular mode of public transportation that the number of rickshaws in China ballooned to 10,000 in less than a year.
It wasn’t until the onset of cars and motorbikes in the 20th century, that rickshaws began to be edged out of the market. Yet even still, Beijing’s rickshaw culture has somehow managed to endure.
The same can be said today. Despite the newest set of challenges facing rickshaws, drivers like Li are still finding ways to drum up business.
“I have to be more cautious now, but work hasn’t been harder or easier,” he said. “Beijing’s very big, and if I can’t go to one area, I can go to another. People are not more or less willing to take a [rickshaw] if there are places they need to go to.”
On a good day, some drivers manage to make up to RMB500, according to Shanghai Daily. But rickshaw drivers who are operating outside of the law still risk of being slapped with fines or having their vehicles – worth roughly RMB2,000 (USD295) – confiscated by authorities.
But drivers like Li still believe the risk is worth the reward.
“It makes money. I’ve been doing it a long time, so I’ve gotten used to it and good at it. I’ll just have to be more careful,” he said.
And for the many drivers who have spent their lives pedeling rickshaws around China’s capital, there’s no other choice but to persevere.
Additional reporting by Vivian Liu