At lunch time on Monday, 51-year-old driver Jin Deqiang got a devastating message from traffic police: he needed to pay a 2,000 yuan ($305) fine because the navigation device on his truck was not working.
The government uses the device, commonly called Beidou (named after China’s satellite navigation system) and installed inside the driver’s cab, to monitor the country’s millions of long-distance trucks, ostensibly to prevent traffic accidents. But the requirement has annoyed drivers who, like Jin, face hefty fines when the device breaks down.
Frustrated with the fine, Jin took his own life in protest.
“It’s not that my life is worth less than 2,000 yuan, but I want to say a word for all the truck drivers,” he said in a WeChat group with other drivers, before he died from drinking herbicide. His family members later confirmed the authenticity of the message to the Beijing News.
“I feel I would not live for too much longer, so I use my death to alert the leaders about the importance of the issue.”
The government of Fengrun district, Tangshan city, where Jin killed himself, said on Tuesday it had launched an investigation into the driver’s death.
Jin’s suicide has prompted grief and anger among China’s millions of truck drivers, who help power the country’s manufacturing and retail sectors, all while being monitored by flawed, ruthless technologies.
The Beidou device allows traffic authorities to monitor the location and speed of the vehicles, and has an alarm that reminds drivers to take a mandatory 20-minute break every four hours.
According to Chinese regulations, truck operators should first get a warning if they are caught with a disconnected navigation device, and, if they still fail to comply, be fined 800 yuan ($122). Those who damage the navigation devices or intentionally block their signals are subject to fines of 2,000 to 5,000 yuan.
But truck drivers say while they are forced to pay for the navigation services out of their own pockets, they have no way to check if the devices are connected or not. It is common to lose signal when they are in mountainous regions.
Cao Hui, a 40-year-old driver who runs an online community for long-distance truck drivers, told VICE World News most members of his group suffered from fines related to the satellite devices.
“This is legal but inhumane,” he said. “[Authorities] force us to install their devices, but when they fail, we are the ones paying.”
Besides the navigation system, drivers also complain about the surveillance cameras that capture traffic violations without considering the actual situation on the road. Some local authorities have in the past used the cameras to generate profits, according to state media reports.
“They [law enforcement] are using truck drivers to make money,” Qi Hongchen, a 48-year-old driver, told VICE World News on the phone, from a parking lot in the southwestern province of Yunnan.
Qi has been on the road since he was 17. He often skips sleep and suffers from a range of chronic diseases, from diabetes to herniated disk. He recently completed a 700-kilometer (435 miles) trip, and made less than $30 dollars after fuel costs were deducted.
“I have been doing this my entire life, and don’t have other skills,” he said. “Anyone who has money would not do this job.”
A fine of 2,000 yuan could be devastating to truck drivers, most of them rural residents who work day and night to support their families. On Thursday, the hashtag #Beidoudisconnection was blocked on microblogging site Weibo after Jin’s death triggered online outrage.
In his last message, Jin said he did not make much money from the past ten years as a truck driver, but was left with high blood pressure and heart problems. He said he felt most guilty to his elderly mother, who raised him and his brother after their father passed away.
“Goodbye my son and daughters, take good care of your grandmother and mother after I die,” he wrote. “Don’t spend your life as a coward like me.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.