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2018-09-04 13:41:56 Commentary

Shortly after 1:00 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2018, in the eastern city of Yueqing, a 20-year-old woman, surnamed Zhao, called a cab through the popular ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing’s carpooling service, Hitch. By 2:50 p.m., she was dead.

The next day, police arrested the car’s driver, surnamed Zhong, who confessed to raping and killing her. It was the second high-profile murder case involving Hitch this year, coming just three months after a 21-year-old flight attendant was also allegedly murdered by her Hitch driver.

After two murders in three months, Didi has found itself the focus of widespread public anger. Netizens and pundits alike have laid almost all of the responsibility for these two incidents at the company’s door, viewing the killings as part of a larger pattern of industry indifference to driver misconduct. In an attempt to defuse the situation, Didi took Hitch offline, removed the service’s general manager, and had both its CEO and president write a public apology for the harm caused by their “ignorance.”

Ride-hailing platforms have a duty to provide passengers with a safe, comfortable ride. Instead, Didi’s ads seemed to actively market its carpool service to drivers as a great way to meet women. Meanwhile, Hitch’s passenger ratings system was overrun with comments about customers’ appearances, and accusations of sexual harassment against Didi drivers piled up online for months ahead of the most recent murder.

However, in our rush to condemn Didi, we must not overlook the crucial role that intransigent and inattentive local bureaucracies have played in these tragedies. In a social media post published after the second murder, the Party-run People’s Daily wrote: “The victim in this case was killed by an evil driver, but they were also killed by buck-passing, bickering, and the apathy of relevant organizations.”

As the details of the case and Didi’s own apology letter make clear, the company’s background check and emergency response procedures are utterly inadequate. Just a day before the latest incident, on August 23, a different female passenger had filed a complaint against Zhong, but Didi took no measures to suspend his account. And the next day, after the victim sent messages to her friends and family asking for help, the company was still slow to respond. According to the police, it also failed to provide investigators with crucial information in a timely fashion, including the suspect’s license plate number.

The central government has outlined a path toward legalization for drivers, but local governments continue to drag their feet.

One oft-made complaint is that ride-hailing services must do more to ensure that their vehicles are registered with the proper authorities. According to Cai Tuanjie, an official with the Ministry of Transport, as of this June China’s ride-hailing apps had registered a total of 340,000 drivers. Yet estimates made by China Economic Weekly — a People’s Daily publication — suggest ride-hailing services currently have 31.2 million drivers on the country’s roads. This means that nationwide barely 1 percent of drivers are operating with all of the required permits.

Yet ride-hailing platforms are not solely to blame for this state of affairs. The central government has outlined a path toward legalization for drivers, but local governments continue to drag their feet. This is in large part because local officials can exert far more control over the taxi industry, where they have a say in everything from prices to the number of cars on the road. Ride-hailing platforms represent a challenge to this system And judging from a June 2018 joint announcement by the Ministry of Transport and six other departments, the central government continues to be more concerned about the potential impact of ride-hailing apps on traffic than about the need for innovative regulations to ensure passenger safety.

Background checks are another area where ride-hailing platforms struggle to get needed support from officials. Currently, there is no one government department responsible for maintaining records of an individual’s history of criminal activity, drug use, risky driving, or sexual harassment — these documents are spread across a patchwork of local and central government departments all over the country. And in some cases, it is possible for people to pay to have such records expunged anyway. Even the authorities struggle to track down needed information under such conditions, and they are typically unwilling to share it with private companies — especially ones operating outside their direct control.

Based on interviews I conducted with Didi employees, ride-hailing services in much of the country have been forced to turn instead to third parties in order to conduct background checks on drivers. These middlemen — who are often former government officials with useful connections — are willing to sell companies the needed information, in exchange for a hefty fee. It is impossible to guarantee that the information obtained in this fashion is accurate or up-to-date, yet ride-hailing platforms often have no other option. In other words, if the background checks they conduct are incomplete, it is not always entirely their fault.

China’s wait-and-see approach to regulation is not only inefficient and overly reactive, it makes coordination between regulatory bodies and the organizations they are supposed to be monitoring more difficult, as companies spend years stuck in legal limbo. This prevents companies from cooperating closely with government departments, and leaves blind spots where there should be regulatory oversight.

I do not mean to suggest that Didi is innocent of all wrongdoing. But we cannot make one company a scapegoat for China’s broader regulatory problems. It is fine to applaud the government when it cracks down on bad actors or issues fines in response to corporate misconduct. But we must also hold officials accountable for their prior inaction and press the country’s regulatory bodies to take real action and work with companies to improve industry standards before tragedies occur, rather than waiting until it is too late.

The impulse to overcorrect and give up on new and emerging industries at the first sign of trouble is not a healthy one.

When faced with the grisly details of these murders, our first reaction may be to call for a ban on ride-hailing altogether. Yet, if a similar case were to occur in a taxi, would the public be just as eager to ban taxis? The impulse to overreact and give up on new and emerging industries at the first sign of trouble is not a healthy one, and may just make the problem worse. Cracking down on ride-hailing services, and black cabs — unregistered, unregulated, and independently operated taxis — may make a comeback, making it even more difficult for riders to find safe, reliable transportation.

All life is precious, and I have no desire to minimize the responsibility Didi bears for these recent tragedies. But there is no completely safe mode of transportation, and all emerging industries go through labor pains. Carpooling services are one of the truest expressions of the sharing economy to date, and raking them over the coals because they can’t reach an impossibly high standard ultimately does nothing to fix the underlying problems with China's regulatory regime. If ride-hailing is to be made safer, not only must Didi improve its internal emergency response procedures, local governments around the country must begin to actively help ride-hailing platforms identify and head off problems before they occur. Only when ride-hailing platforms and the government are on the same page can riders’ faith in the system be restored.

Translator: Kilian O'Donnell, editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O'Donnell.

(Header image: A man uses the Didi app in Fuzhou, Fujian province, Aug. 26, 2018. Zhang Bin/CNS/VCG)