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Chinese People Seem to Love Uber. Chinese Authorities? Not So Much

Screen Capture from Uber Guangzhou page.

Screen capture from Uber Guangzhou page.

Authorities raided the Chengdu, China office of popular US-based crowd-sourced taxi service Uber on May 6, about a week after its Guangzhou office was raided on accusations of operating without a license and conducting illegal business.

Officials claimed that the crackdown was part of a comprehensive operation against unlicensed taxis; China is certainly not the first country go after Uber for that reason. But some believe the raids had other motives — to protect domestic taxi-hailing services by clamping down on a foreign competitor.

Uber made its debut in China in February 2014 and currently operates in about 10 Chinese cities. Its deal with Baidu, the country's biggest search engine, in December 2014 has given the app access to Baidu's map and boosted its business in China.

But in January 2015, China's Ministry of Transportation announced a ban on private cars offering unlicensed taxi rides via mobile apps. Not long after, China's two largest domestic operators of taxi-hailing apps — Kuaidi Dache, backed by Alibaba Group, and Didi Dache, backed by Tecent Holdings – decided to merge. They claimed they would more closely monitor services by connecting their passengers to cars owned by rental agencies — licensed third parties according to guidelines set by the Ministry of Transportation.

In March, Didi Dache held talks with Uber for a partnership arrangement that would monopolize the market. Uber did not comment on the news.

In seems that Uber is in favor of competition. In addition to working with private car rental agencies, Uber China has developed a “People's Uber” carpooling strategy to recruit more private cars into its network. Thomas Luo, a tech blogger, praised the company's courage to set up such a platform:

尽管大量低价车充斥着人民优步的市场[…]司机试图在意用户的感受并尽量满足乘客的需求——这种平衡让Uber在中国获得了“人民性”。而获得了“人民性”的Uber和它的“人民优步”服务,事实上成为了一个将那些被摒弃在出租车营运体系和资格之外的私家车们(官方亲切地称之为“黑车”)凝聚和组织在一起的“另一个出租车”营运体系,一个依靠人民群众,放手发动群众的出行供需平台。[…]也正是因为如此,它让竞争对手恐慌——微信平台曾多次以“恶意营销”为名封禁Uber在各个城市的运营公众号[…]

Although a large number of shabby private cars have entered the Uber market […] the drivers are catering to customers’ needs — the market equilibrium helps Uber get people's support in China. The people-oriented Uber and its “People Uber” service has evolved into another rental car operation system for those private drivers who were kicked out from the official rental car system (the official term for them is “black cars”.) The system depends on people and the platform is operated according to people's demand and supply. […] Because of [such a people-oriented set-up], its competitors are very nervous. WeChat has blocked the public accounts of Uber in many cities under the pretext of “spam marketing” […]

But the Chinese authorities are not a fan of this “people-oriented” business strategy. Luo believed Uber's foreign background is the main reason behind the crackdown:

对一家试图在中国开展业务的美国科技公司来说,保守和矜持会遭到轻视和“不接地气”的嘲笑,但决绝和生猛毫无疑问会遇到更严酷的反扑——2008年的Google中国和现在的Uber都是这样的例子。
但Uber在中国面临的并非Google当年的窘境——Google在中国的业务从第一天起就有文化与意识形态的壁垒,最终的结局也是由于双方(Google与中国监管机构)之间无可调和的价值分歧。而Uber不同,更方便、更实惠和更有赚头的利益驱动是放之四海而皆准的普世价值,而其遭遇的一些被触动利益的主管机构的制裁与打压 […]

For US- based technology companies, which attempt to develop business in China, if their strategies are conservative, they would be humiliated as not being localized. Yet, if they are determined and proactive, they would face a lot of pressure — that's what happened to Google China back in 2008 and today's Uber.

Yet Uber is different from Google — Google's business in China from day one was confronted with cultural and ideological barriers and eventually the difference in values between Google and Chinese regulators reached a breaking point. Uber's values are based on its convenient, economical and profitable service. Being driven by interests is universal, and when the business affected others’ interests, authorities stepped in […]

In addition to the raids on Uber's offices, Chinese police has been targeting Uber drivers in major cities, some going undercover by calling cabs through the application as customers.

However, Luo was quite optimistic about Uber's future. He believes that people will develop their own strategies to tackle the crackdown:

看看在人民优步被严厉打压的北京和广州正在发生的事吧——打开Uber应用,5分钟以内可到的“人民优步”轿车仍然密布在地图上随处可见。可能一些司机会提前打电话过来摸一下情况,判断一下是不是被“钓鱼执法”,可能有的司机会跟你商量“咱们到机场直接下停车场,省得被查”,还有的人会跟你约定接头方式和暗号,但一个基本的事实是:活照拉[…]

Take a look at Beijing and Guangzhou where the “People's Uber” service is severely suppressed — turn on the Uber apps, and you will see in the map lots of “People's Uber” private cars that can offer their services within five minutes. Perhaps some drivers will call back to check if the police are conducting a “fishing operation”. Some drivers will even suggest stopping at the airport car park to prevent police checks. Some might decide on a secret code with you before you get in the car. Basically, business as usual […]

He urges people to take sides and support “People's Uber”:

这是一场人民优步的人民战争。我们来自五湖四海,为了更自由方便地出行的目的,走到一起来了。当你接到人民优步司机小心谨慎地询问的电话的时候,多给一点理解和耐心——这就是你们接头的暗号。每一个乘客和每一个司机的每一次接头和交易,都指向一条真正通向自由之路。

This is a people's war over “People's Uber”. We come from different places and gather on one platform because we want to enjoy freedom and convenience when we travel. When Uber drivers ask for your phone number, please be understanding and patient — this is a secret code. Every transaction is leading to freedom.

Judging from the reactions on social media, Uber indeed has won the support of many. But the country's policies do not necessarily side with the people, as implied in Audrey Li's observation regarding Chinese journalist Michael Anti's comment on the crackdown in Twitter-like Weibo:

关于广州查封Uber总部,安替有句精彩评论:感觉政府解决交通问题无能,但解决能解决交通问题的人非常有能力。

Concerning the crackdown on Uber's Guangzhou office, Micheal Anti has a very bright comment: It seems that the government is incapable of solving the traffic problem, but capable of “solving” those who are capable of solving the traffic problem.

Public transportation is usually very poor in over-populated Chinese cities. That's why Michael Anti's comment is echoed by many in the post thread, such as this one:

不解决群众提出的问题!而解决提出问题的群众

It won't solve the question raised by people, but it will “solve” those who raise the question.

1 comment

  • […] official at the Chengdu city transportation commission said the raids were part of a comprehensive investigation into Uber's role in the unlicensed private taxi business. The Chinese government in January banned drivers of […]

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