I needed to get to a meeting at the South Campus but I lived on the North Campus. It was 2012 and I was teaching in China. Lunchtime was over and I just missed the regular buses at the front gate that ran between campuses. To the side of the university gate was a little square Chang-An car and its driver was looking out for such situations. He drove up and asked “Need a ride?” in Chinese.
Eager to get to my meeting, I said “Sure!” and I hopped into his unmarked car. This was a “hei che” or “black car,” although the color was not black. A black car is an unlicensed and illegal taxi in China.
Within minutes we pulled into the South Campus and I directed the driver around to the central building with two major lecture halls. I began getting out a few bills, but as he turned the corner, we found ourselves in the midst of police cars lining both sides of the street. The license plates all bore “WJ” indicating the more serious level of police. Many of these plain clothes officers were taking their last chance to puff on a cigarette before going back in to their conference across the hall from mine.
“No money, no money” my driver frantically waved at me, seeing we were surrounded by cops. I thanked him for the (free) ride and went in to my conference on science publication—on time.
In 2012, only taxis were authorized to accept money for rides. “Black cars” were technically illegal.
I again taught in China the last three months of 2017. And I was utterly surprised while again waiting at a bus stop. A well-dressed lady was not standing in line for the bus, but briefly and deftly thumbed the keyboard on her smartphone. Everything in China is now managed on smartphones, and usually with the WeChat app. But within less than a minute, a newish, unmarked car pulled up to the curb. It became obvious that the driver and lady were connected by phone.
“It is perfectly legal now,” replied my college colleagues when I brought up my observations. No more “black cars.”
“So anyone can become an Uber-like taxi-driver?” I asked. And the answer was positive; you just had to make arrangements with the Chinese version of ride-hailing service, called “Didi DaChe.” The parent company Didi Chuxing launched ahead of the western Uber company and is the world's largest car-sharing service. Last year, it provided over 25 million rides per day, more than the daily rides provided by all other ride-sharing companies worldwide combined.
Didi Chuxing is a huge company, formed from a merger of two initial companies supported by Tencent and Alibaba, among the most wealthy enterprises in the world. Didi is not just involved in operating ride-sharing in China, but expanded into Artificial Intelligence and autonomous driving technology, private car rental, chauffeur services, buses, minibuses and bike sharing in China.
Although it began in Beijing and the other large cities in China, this enterprise has now grown to serve nearly 500 million users in over 400 cities. At the close of 2017, Didi became the most expensive start-up in the world, with nearly US$60 billion in valuation and over a hundred investors.
This could not have occurred 30 or even 20 years ago, because China had only begun to expand from public transportation to average citizens owning cars. Even ten years ago would have found no surplus of cars and drivers willing to become private taxi services. But today, with a society nearly completely wired by smartphones, China’s ride-hailing services have moved as rapidly as the public demand has allowed. Safety is virtually no concern in China, where streets in even the biggest cities are safe day and night.
“I assume that the taxi drivers are not happy?” I ask my colleagues.
“No, they aren’t” was the reply, “but the needs of the people, and the desire to make some money from the family car have now become greater.”
The American view of China as totally controlled from the top is long outdated. Much of China's day-to-day life now operates from the bottom up, by finding a middle ground that accommodates the needs of the people. When the everyday people wanted to change, the government had to change the rules to accommodate them.
The demise of “black cars” and the rise of ride services is but one example of the new China.