What Uber Means to Chengdu: More than Money

“So is Uber legal in America?”

UberAmong China’s Uber drivers, that question has become the natural follow-up to the classic “Where are you from?” ice-breaker. While the question brings a welcome change to the repetitive conversation foreign passengers often have with drivers, it signals the significant tension between the Chinese government and the world’s largest ride-sharing app.

Uber is not, in fact, banned on a national level in China: Uber is banned by many municipal governments trying to stem private car-hailing apps entering the market. But Uber now operates in nine cities in China– even cities that have enacted such bans –  and continues to hold two training sessions per day for new drivers in each of those cities.

In the App Store this time last year, the app was hovering around #500 in China’s download ranks; now, it’s the 11th most downloaded app in China. As of last year, China downloads more iOS apps than even the United States, so this is a massive influx of new users into Uber China.

Uber App Annie Rank
In one year, Uber app downloads in China’s App Store have skyrocketed to 11th place overall

Municipal authorities aren’t taking this sitting down: Last week, a friend sent me video of the raid on Uber’s Chengdu office. The video actually captured the aftermath of the raid, showing Uber drivers flowing out of the office in unified, unadulterated outrage. Uber sent a text message its drivers that day urging them to remain calm and continue business as usual.

These raids have had minimal impact on Uber drivers: the day after the raid, I opened up the Uber app on the corner of Nijiaqiao and Renmin Nanlu in Chengdu and saw that 7 cars were circling within two minutes of my location; I switched to my NPR News app and read that Uber offices in now five different cities have been raided. Regardless of whether these raids ultimately impact the business or not, one thing is clear: most of Chengdu’s Uber drivers are not scared.

Uber As a Social Network

In my past two months of using the service and meeting the men and women who drive Ubers full and part time, I’ve come to understand that Uber represents to many of them much more than a car-hailing app or money on the side.

The first time I heard Uber referred to as a “social media app” was during a quick 8.8 rmb ride. Mr Xie works, in his words, in environmental protection, Ubering as soon as he’s off the clock up until his wife gets off work, when he’ll pick her up and they’ll return home together. Xie, like most of the drivers I’ve encountered, is in his late-20’s or early-30’s and fairly outgoing. He says there are just so many good reasons to Uber: it pads his pockets, gives him something entertaining to do in his free time, and regularly introduces him to interesting characters.

Open Uber and See A More Interesting World
“Open Uber and See A More Interesting World”

Later, I found out that in marketing materials as well as in their training sessions, Uber refers to itself here in China as a social network.

It’s unclear which is the more significant draw for new drivers: the money or the networking potential. Drivers can earn more part-time Uber-ing than full-time day-jobbing, thanks to the subsidies Uber is paying drivers. At the same time, I haven’t had a single ride where the driver didn’t mention their desire to make friends through the service. With this rare combination of networking and bankrolling, there are few – if any – drivers who feel ambivalent about Uber’s value. Drivers may not say this up front, but Uber isn’t just changing personal enterprise; it’s also changing personal interaction.

We’ve seen how Uber’s ability to put a stranger in your backseat can go terribly wrong, but here in China where the crime rate is reportedly very low, personal gun ownership is completely illegal, and 55 different offenses (31 of which are non-violent) are punishable by death, Uber in China manages to clear a different societal hurdle: pervasive distrust. There have been no shortage of incidents which have hurt everyday Chinese peoples’ ability to trust each other, but now Uber has them climbing in strangers’ cars. This is not to say that Uber has single-handedly restored Chinese peoples’ faith in humanity – my female friends still balk at my offers to call them an Uber if they’re traveling alone at night – but this is a significant development. Regardless, the people I’ve met through Uber have been courteous, charming and friendly.

The Good People of Uber

My first Uber driver and I hit it off immediately. The 40 minute drive to Xindu in his white 2010 Mercedes gave me ample time to learn a bit about 29 year-old Reeves, whose unusually self-deprecating charm made him a joy to be around. We bonded over a shared appreciation of Flower Town, a country town that houses some hip bars and hidden gem restaurants. As we rode through a grey Chengdu and discovered common interests, Reeves and I carried on as if we were old friends, his bombastic and infectious laughter paving the way for easy conversation. “I may be a little chubby, but I’m damn good at talking to girls,” he shared with me, grinning and looking back. I laughed and told him I could use his help. He chuckled some more. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not even Chinese.” “I’m starting to get the feeling you’re not,” I responded.

In the car with a Chengdu Uber driver
In the car with an Uber driver in Chengdu

Reeves Ubered part-time before the raids, but not nearly as much now, a combination of feeling the heat brought on by the raids and his own waning interest in driving. Others, though, carry on unperturbed and even more continue to sign up as drivers.

On the first weekend in May before my driver Ms. Yang arrived, she called and asked me if it was okay if her husband joined the ride as well. They had been using Uber to spice up their Saturday nights, quitting around 10:30 before they started getting drunk customers. Although Ms. Yang was the registered driver, her husband drove as she sat on her knees facing the backseat engaging me about the Nepal earthquake, charity scams, and of course the legality of Uber in China and elsewhere. I first heard from Ms. Yang – what I thought to be a rumor but turned out to be true – that Uber would cover the up-to-30,000 RMB fine for drivers caught by the police. She said this allows her and her husband to continue their Friday night rides worry-free. This is the same type of brazen appeal to the public Uber has relied upon in other cities across the globe. It has worked there, and it’s working in China so far.

Some Uber drivers use the service as an extension of their day job. While swapping stories about our Uber drivers, an American friend of mine told me about a financial advisor who was using Uber to find clients. Another recent ride introduced me to Mr. Peng, whose day job is at a relocations company. Mr. Peng told me to get in contact with him whenever I decided to move from Chengdu.

I’ve met all types these past several months of using Uber. Generally, these drivers have been young, open-minded, patient, and considerate. On a recent visit to Beijing, an Uber driver who drove past my position due to my poor directions got out of his car and walked about about 10 minutes to where I somehow ended up. I suggested canceling the ride and just calling another car, but he insisted that he would find me. When he found me, he was surprisingly sympathetic, only lightly scolding me for considering giving up, then quickly moving on to discussing the differences between northern and southern China.

Something to Fight For

These drivers are earning good money (in large part due to the unsustainable subsidies Uber is providing) and that’s an obvious attraction. More significantly though, every driver Chengdu Living has talked to has commented on a sense of freedom that isn’t a really common sentiment among China’s middle class. Many of these drivers have day jobs as well, but it seems that having income from a job where they choose the hours not only gives them a sense of freedom but also a newfound sense of control. To protect these gains, they’re willing to risk encounters with law enforcement, with some even willing to assemble in public, an act that has a very fraught history in China.

Uber has done something unprecedented in today’s China. It’s crystallized a group with a common interest that is in direct opposition to the government’s desires. These are not marginalized people: these are car-owning, forward-thinking, mostly middle-class civilians who have not only a legitimate complaint against the government, but a strong organizational base. Uber is being careful not to encourage the kind of public assembly we’ve seen from its drivers in the past weeks, but belonging to this group is nonetheless something that gives them a sense of solidarity and purpose.

The same way I get asked the same question by every driver, I too have a question for all of my drivers: Are you really willing to risk an encounter with law enforcement and potential fine? As my driver nonchalantly put it last night, “There’s risk in doing any sort of business.”

According to drivers Chengdu Living has talked to, there are around 38,000 Uber drivers in Chengdu, and more each day as long as training sessions continue. Thousands of those drivers are connected in WeChat groups where they discuss each new development. This type of assembly potential is massive and it’s exactly what the Chinese government is scared of. Uber has given this stratum of society a cause to fight for. If the government continues to encroach upon these drivers’ newfound sense of freedom and control, who knows what they are willing to do to save it.

45 thoughts on “What Uber Means to Chengdu: More than Money”

  1. “…it’s crystallized a middle class group with a common interest that is in direct opposition to the government’s desires”

    This is one of the most interesting facets of the Uber situation. It’s as good a metaphor as any for inefficient governance. If I were to draw a list of the most frustrating issues of living in Chengdu, taxis and their drivers are right up there at the top. For a service that’s supposed to be regulated they constantly fall short for just about everything. I’m still baffled as to why so many drivers are outright difficult when a destination is given. Uber is the polar opposite of the taxi experience in every sense, and the informed public knows it. If you’ve used Uber and it remains available to you, it makes no sense to give preference to using a taxi in light of all the consistent negatives.

    What would make this whole affair really interesting is if the government decides to place legal onus on the passenger. At that point it might be lights out for common sense.

    • Yeah Brendan, I’m curious when these governments will stop taking half-measures and expand the ban beyond the municipal level. They may block the app and Uber website, impose some seriously restrictive policies, or do something crazy like fine passengers. On the flip side, who knows, some cities may even enact some reforms to the existing taxi system. It’s hard to say.

      One aspect I neglected to mention – and one that I’m really interested in – is Uber’s partnership with Baidu, and what Baidu plans to do with the data it may be collecting from Uber rides. Read: Baidu to Buy Stake in Uber

      Either way, this story is developing.

  2. I think one of the reasons why the response from Chinese Uber drivers to the interference of the government has been so strong is because ride-sharing feels personal and apolitical to participants.

    Although government regulations of, or restrictions on Uber may be an extension of a taxi lobby, which is reasonable in the sense that it is big industry, and the government’s role is to regulate industry, for the people participating, it feels much more like social intercourse than big business, which makes government intervention feels much more invasive, and less justified.

    Because to participants it feels more personal than commercial (or political), government intervention feels more inappropriate, which ironically, has made it take on more of a political dimension.

    • I would disagree that government/municipality resistance towards Uber is primarily motivated by taxi lobby pressure (even though this also is a force one shall count with).

      Total liberalization of the transport so far did not happen anywhere in the world.

      One of the reasons for it is that not all routes are profitable and the unprofitable ones are in pure liberal environment either dropped (followed by further economical consequences) or the rates come to the level of pure luxury, shall the market allow that.

      Te problem is that in liberal environment there is no way to keep subsidized services as the costs for government would become unfeasible.

      What concerns then of the article I am sure that if Uber did not pay for it then they certainly should because it’s clearly written just from one side and it’s hard to find any other goal than propagating this product. Nothing wrong with that …

      But it’s more an Uber ad rather than the article describing the real situation.

      • Uber is obviously not the only ride-sharing app operating in China – in fact it currently has a very small, perhaps temporary share of the market. However, my experience with ride-sharing and car rental in China has been exclusively through Uber, so that’s where my information is coming from. Perhaps Didi and Kuadi drivers are just as enthusiastic about that set-up – that’s another article, perhaps.

        One of the main reasons I am more interested in talking about Uber than the Chinese companies is because we can see Uber doing business all over the world and compare how differently China and other countries react to the market disruptions and social influence.

        Anyways, the people we’ve all talked to don’t gush about how Uber is the greatest and I’m not saying Uber is here to liberate the people from the daily grind, but the people are consistently supportive, some assembling to show it (that link takes you to an article about the protest resulting from an Chengdu Uber driver getting his licensed revoked by traffic police). That’s a significant gesture here and the degree of support they’re displaying makes this worth remarking upon.

      • Regarding the question of whether “government regulations of, or restrictions on Uber may be an extension of a taxi lobby,” I think it is definitely a factor, even if it may not be the only one.

        Your comment seems in part to be responding to a straw man who is advocating for total elimination of any regulation of transport companies. I did not advocate that, the article did not advocate that, nor is that sentiment necessarily implicit in a position of support for Uber’s existence.

        This article was not financially supported by Uber (though we do have ad space available, if they are interested!) and your impugning of its sincerity is thoroughly discourteous.

      • You evidently do not understand or agree with why Chengdu or China really cares about Uber, and consider it to be equal or inferior to apps like 专车一号 which you have mentioned in the forum thread about Uber. It is pretty clear by now that everyone who has voiced an opinion disagrees with you, both here and in the forum.

        It’s fine to disagree with our findings speaking to dozens of Uber drivers in Chengdu and reporting their sentiment here. With that said, to suggest that this is a paid article or is nothing more than an ad is a disrespectful way to show that you disagree.

        • I have absolutely no problem with UBER or any other similar application which improves my transport conditions, as long as it’s legal.
          I also see no problem with the people arguing hard in order to support their standpoint.
          I am just of the opinion that the articles in general, not just this one, should be balanced and if there are any con’s so these should be also stated.
          But again – that’s just my opinion which I voiced here and I do not insist on the fact that the other people have to share my point of view.
          I also did not say the article is paid ad – I was just suggesting that it bears all sings of advertisement (and I really do think so) and it was more meant as the suggestion that putting a bit more balance into the story would, as per my opinion, help a lot.
          It looks like Uber topic is very emotional issue for some people here and may be therefore the discussion is sometimes quite heated. I assume it would actually be a bit better if it would turned into more rational and less emotional one …
          But I admit I can also be wrong 🙂

          • Miro, expressing your opinion is absolutely welcomed and encouraged. However, I’d like to say once again that this is not an article on the pros and cons of Uber as a service. This is an article about my experience with Uber drivers, and their experience with Uber: what draws them to use the service in the first place and what keeps them driving for Uber.

            If you’re looking for an assessment of the app, the service, the quality of drivers, cleanliness of cars vis a vis other taxi services, you can find that article elsewhere.

            And if you don’t believe that Uber drivers said any of the positive things I relayed in this article (which I don’t think you do, because you’ve asked me to “describe the real situation), then there’s really nothing I can do except encourage you to pursue the kinds of conversations I had in order to write this article in the first place.

    • This is a good article that I haven’t read, thanks for sharing it. It is exciting to see technology destroy so many traditional business models: the world’s biggest “hotel” being AirBNB, biggest “taxi company” being Uber, etc. AirBNB blows away hotels exactly like Uber blows away taxis. It’s not just exciting because it’s such a dramatic change, but because these new technologies do so much to empower consumers and improve the services available to them.

  3. Any suggestion on how to sign up for Uber in the Uber app? When I input my Chinese mobile # in the Uber app it wants me to provide a China based payment option, and I want to use an American one like paypal, etc.

    • I personally have been using my Mastercard that I got while living in the US. I unfortunately don’t have the answer to your question. I thought Paypal worked but I’m not totally sure :/

  4. My brother in law drives Uber now – he started just last weekend, and loves it so far.

    I wonder if any foreigners have decided to try out driving Uber in China if any, wouldn’t it be a wonderful social experience?

  5. I took the train in to CD North today and tried to grab an uber. Didn’t even have the option to “request Uber” for anywhere near the train station, but if you moved the pin a good ways away it would let you. It seems that there has been a Geofence put in place around station.

    If this is indeed the case, I wonder if this is Uber protecting it’s investment by not allowing drivers to do pickups there, or if it’s a bargain/compromise with the gov’t to give taxis the whole market there?

    • I would guess that it’s to not get in the way of the taxis who are lined up there. That line is the worst though, I’ll do almost anything to avoid it, including just walk away from the train station and call a taxi. But just moving the pin on Uber and asking them to pick you up at the train station is the best way, I think.

  6. Really wonderful to have this service available to you in Chengdu. This is the kind of thing that is taken for granted in most of the world, but it sounds like this is the best time to be using Uber in Chengdu, or elsewhere that it is available in China.

  7. Took Uber tonight for the first time. It was enjoyable and cheap: 18 yuan as opposed to 32 a taxi would have charged. The driver was pretty young and a bit timid – didn’t know the correct roads to take. If I had been in a hurry, I probably would have been a bit miffed, but the price was definitely a deal. Interesting to see how this company will turn out – especially after the driver subsidies and incentives wane away.

    I don’t understand a lot of complaints I hear about taxi drivers in China. 98% of the time I’ve never been refused a ride in any city. Most people who complain to me about being refused a ride are asking for some idiotic route like taking the 2nd ring to tongzilin at 5:30pm. (seriously, why do you people live in that neighborhood? Residential prison-walls and razor wire down every street? Appealing?)

    I understand if you don’t like the murkiness, brashery or even the driving ability of local taxi drivers, but jeez, welcome to another country. Realize that those taxi drivers have just been doing what the market allowed for. They pay big-time fees just to drive their shitty green car around town. And that 98% has been nothing but friendly to me. Why such high expectations?

    A significant part of my Chinese language skills and my understanding of this country from a blue-collar perspective I attribute to taxi drivers. Whether kind, rude, slow or charming, they’ve always had something revealing to say. What makes an uber driver any better than that? Besides, a taxi driver in Chengdu would have taken me home 25% faster than my uber driver tonight.
    Uber is fine and great, and I applaud them if they can pole vault any government attempts at sabotage, but taxi drivers have been getting you from A to B for a pretty damn good deal, too.

    • I’m not making a judgement on the quality of conversations with Uber drivers vs. taxi drivers. But if the topic of the conversation is “Why do you drive Uber?” and “Are you afraid of the police pulling you over because you’re driving an Uber?” then yes, in this case, Uber drivers have more to offer than a regular taxi driver.

      As for complaining about local taxis… there hasn’t been any of that here. In fact, moving back to Chengdu last year (especially after life in New York) I was particularly excited about the ability to take cabs again. The affordable, quick, reckless, talkative cab rides was something I looked forward to. Little did I expect that an even more convenient, even cheaper service would become available.

      Even less expected that there would be any sort of positive emotional attachment on that part of the drivers of that service <-- that's what has garnered my attention and made me feel like it is worth writing about. Moreover, I'm not suggesting that local taxi drivers can go get fucked. I think they deserve a better deal. And I think competition with Uber has already caused some progress in that direction. This story is far from over so it's too early to say, but it's a conversation lots of Chinese people wouldn't be having if it wasn't for Uber and other car-hailing apps' disruptive entry into the market.

      • Sorry Dan, my response should have been more pointed at Brendan’s top comment about how frightening taxi rides are here and at Graham in the forum who cheers on the demise of CD taxi drivers. Not to mention the people I speak to in person who have nothing but complaints about local taxi rides (particularly from people who don’t bother to even learn the language).

        Anyways, I enjoyed the article. Keep it up.

  8. I’ve said elsewhere that I got no real complaints with Chengdu cabbies. One thing I’ve noticed is that if you just show them the address in Chinese (maybe on your phone) they are sometimes reluctant to go, possibly cos they are not sure where it is. I’ve found that if I speak to the guy (even in my pretty bad Chinese) and say “you know this place? It’s really close to that” then often they will then take me. Maybe it makes them more comfortable, or he figures that you can at least give him directions (“go straight here, then turn right”) if he does have trouble locating it. Just speculating here…

  9. Has anyone else experienced that more and more Uber drivers are declining rides as time goes on? It usually happens on the phone, but I’ve had several who don’t ask where I want to go until I get in the car and then they ask me to cancel it so they can get a “more local” fare.

    I’m secretly hoping that despite identifying myself as “that white guy on the corner” they can’t tell my “LaoWainess” on the phone and then once they see me they fear that the won’t be able to chat during the ride, opting to take someone who is a native Chinese speaker.

  10. I do appreciate that the author had a great time in local uber’s car,however,at some point,this article seems went too far and a little bit emotional and biased.
    After seriously reading the whole article,I, as a native Chinese,got the impression that uber driver who actually represent the Chinese middle class,most of which are great people, while the communist goverment constantly is a worthless/anti-humanity/anti-democracy organization.But the fact is uber,for the time being,is not banned in China,contrarily,it has been fully or partly banned in some developed capitalism countries.
    Why don’t we start thinking in another way?Why the Chinese government let it existing instead of crackdown of it?Obviously there are no technical barriers hardly across for Chinese government to kill the uber growing from cradle,furthermore,I do believe our huge society progress can’t be achieved without the mindset-shifting inside the party member,while a lot of government officals are also in part of the middle class.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and leave this valuable comment. You’re asking good questions; I too wonder what the conversations are like among government officials on the topic of dealing with Uber. Why hasn’t the app been banned outright? Well, the only thing I can say is there isn’t a nation-wide ban, and city governments don’t have the authority to ban an app or a website, as far as I know. We do know the official stance, but we don’t know what degree of support it’s receiving from government officials on a personal level. You’re absolutely right that it’s shifts in the mindsets of the party members that will influence some of the more significant changes. Unfortunately these are things that, without the proper connections and sources, one can only speculate about.

      • Well,Actually I need to thank you Dan,without your article shared here,I wouldn’t take a try of uber and see how it goes,turns out quite positive.
        I would like to tell a story.
        There was a time,rumors widespreaded that the main state-owned telecome companies would charge fees of people who frequently using Wechat text service instead of using the SMS service supplied by telecome companies.it happened at the time when wechat gain overwhelming popularity among people while most of them were just assuming the rumor would become true,but it didn’t.
        Does the rumor comes out from Uber quite similar with that orignated from Wechat,in terms of,financially speaking,there are definitely some goverment departments or sections impacted largely by these new social,technology,ideas transition but somehow the transition seems contribute benefit to the normal people and would be win-win for the whole society.
        Dan,I think you said quite right,the middle class bear sort of rebellious mind to the goverment,but the government knows well how to handle these crises in current situation,they made wechat free for people but with strictly control in order to prevent against-government information flying around.so the same to UBER,as long as uber stay apolitical and contribute to the society,I feel optimistic about its future here.
        Don’t try to make any social choas,this is the red line of the government,besides,OK.

  11. Been using uber a lot lately but it’s not without it’s own frustrations. Last two drivers had no idea how to find the place (IKEA from Nijiaqiao WTF?). Also I sometimes miss the reckless confidence of taxi drivers. It can be irritating when an uber driver is super cautious. The last guy I had to tell “Go! Why are you waiting! Nobody is gonna let you in!”. Seemed very timid and inexperienced. But it’s generally a great service…

    • I’m in the process of writing an update to this article because the app and the drivers are transforming. In just a few short weeks the service has declined considerably, from the fact that Uber no longer shows you the price of each ride in the app to the patience of drivers. You are just as likely to get in an Uber with a driver from out of town as you would be if you took a cab. And the drivers who have been driving from the beginning are salty that they’re not getting subsidized as much, though most of them say they knew this day was coming. Anyways, the Uber in Chengdu right now is way different than the one I wrote about. This is according to my own experience and the experience of everyone else I know in Chengdu who uses Uber, so yeah, it’s anecdotal and should be taken with a grain of salt, but it still feels like a significant shift.

  12. yesterday a driver asked if we could walk 10 minutes to meet him cos he didnt wanna go down YuLin Xilu xi. Taxis were plentiful so we said f**k it and hoped a cab…

  13. I’ve tried using Uber in Beijing but our payment methods (USA-based Visa card and Paypal) didn’t work. Any idea what payment methods work?

    • As far as I know, Uber will only work in China for expats with foreign credit cards. I have mine set up with Visa and MasterCard and it works with both, so I think there must be something wrong with your particular situation. I would contact Uber customer support, they are very good.

  14. I’m little curious to know whether Uber’s partnership with Baidu, because Baidu buys stakes from Uber. In that sense it’s expanding.
    Whatever it be Uber offers a better service in Chengdu when compared to other competitors


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