Trucker culture, China-style

Hitching a ride with China’s unsung army of 30m long-distance drivers

AROUND FIVE in the morning is the most lethal time on China’s motorways, says a transport-industry veteran. The peril comes from long-distance lorry drivers, whose vehicles may have been rolling for days, pausing only for fuel and the rest stops required by law: 20 minutes every four hours, with no daily limit on driving. As dawn breaks, a long-haul trucker may be munching sunflower seeds and sipping cold tea to stay awake, while a driving partner dozes on a bunk bed. To help that partner sleep, the windows may be closed. The only sound may be the tinny tones of a satellite-navigation device. Such drivers “are like ticking bombs, you don’t know if they are awake or asleep,” says the veteran, adding that as a result wise travellers avoid highways until after seven.

If that makes drivers sound a bit unloved, the reality is sadder. Many Chinese do not think about long-haul lorries enough to be scared of them. China’s 30m lorry drivers are vital but invisible. Their toil helped the country become a manufacturing juggernaut. It is now feeding a consumer-spending boom, as middle-class Chinese order anything from a sofa to a selfie-stick with a tap on a smartphone, for express delivery at cut-price rates. This explosion in mobility, involving the creation of a vast highway network and a high-tech logistics industry in less than a generation, has brought Chinese truckers neither fame nor respect. When America and western Europe experienced similar transport booms in the 20th century, popular culture made folk heroes of long-distance drivers—brawny, taciturn types who prefer to brave blizzards than obey a foreman on a factory floor. Hollywood made films about wisecracking, heartbreaking truckers outsmarting policemen and other authority figures. Country singers recorded tributes like the hit of 1975, “Convoy” (“Ain’t nothin’ gonna get in our way”). Soon after becoming president Donald Trump invited truckers to the White House, climbed into a big rig and blasted its air horn, burnishing his blue-collar rebel credentials.

In contrast, China’s rulers are wary of authority-flouting loners. Greeting scooter-riding delivery workers in Beijing before the Chinese new year, President Xi Jinping offered…