“So is Uber legal in America?”
Among 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.
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.
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.
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.