Taxi drivers drink poison in Beijing protest

Olli Geibel | AFP | Getty Images

More than 30 disgruntled taxi drivers drank poison and passed out on a busy shopping street in central Beijing on Saturday, in an unusually dramatic protest against vehicle leasing rules in their home city.

Beijing police found the drivers lying on the ground on Wangfujing Ave, a high-end commercial district just blocks from Tiananmen Square, with bottles of pesticide beside them, according to a report on the police's official Weibo account. They were taken to local hospitals, where their condition is not life threatening, the police said.

Traveling to Beijing to protest treatment by far-flung local governments is an ancient Chinese tradition, while drinking pesticide or fertiliser has also been used to draw attention to grievances.

Still, the latest incident was notable for the number of protestors involved and the attention generated on social media. Photos of the apparently unconscious drivers were heavily circulated on Weibo, China's main Twitter-like microblog platform, but censors had removed them by Sunday.

The drivers traveled from Suifenhe city, in far northeastern Heilongjiang province, to Beijing to petition the central government against the ban on drivers owning and operating their own taxis. The regulations, passed in 2011, forced them to lease taxis through government-appointed taxi operators.

Suifenhe, near China's border with Russia, has suffered from the falling rouble and ailing Russian economy, with taxi drivers complaining of fewer fares from visiting Russian businessmen, according to local media.

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The rust-belt cities of northeast China bear the brunt of China's economic slowdown. Heilongjiang's economy grew the second slowest of any Chinese province last year at 5.6 per cent, well below the national 7.4 per cent growth rate. Late last year as many as 20,000 teachers in the province went on strike to demand greater pension benefits.

Financial magazine Caixin on Saturday quoted a protestor as saying the taxi drivers had submitted complaints to the transport ministry and the petition bureau—the traditional last resort for citizens to file all manner of grievances against local governments—but had received no response. By Sunday Caixin's story was no longer accessible and had been replaced by the same official police statement published on Weibo.

Government statistics show that China experiences 90,000 "mass incidents" every year, typically sparked by specific grievances like land seizures, pollution, and local corruption.

In a separate event, the official Xinhua news agency reported late on Friday that police detained 22 protestors who stormed a high-speed rail station in Mazha village in Guangdong province, the southeastern export hub, to draw attention to "issues with land, money, irrigation and housing" in the village.

"Large areas of land were sold cheaply, and many villagers were never properly compensated," Xinhua quoted a villager as saying.

Additional reporting by Li Wan in Beijing