China’s embattled taxi drivers take action against threat from e-bikes

19 August 2020

China’s taxi drivers, who are still struggling to recover from the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, are facing a new threat to their livelihoods. Several tech companies are promoting electric bicycle sharing schemes in urban areas, drawing even more customers away from taxis. Taxi drivers are responding with direct action.

Between May and July 2020, China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map recorded at least 18 taxi driver protests across China. Although most of these protests were related to the lingering impact of the pandemic - with demands for reduced rents, operating rights refunds, government subsidies, etc. - four incidents were specifically directed at the threat from e-bike sharing systems.

On 12 June, for example, taxi drivers in Xiangyin, Hunan filed a complaint with the county government alleging that tech company Baimi (拜米) had illegally deployed hundreds of e-bikes. The drivers claimed that the company did not undergo any tender process before introducing its system last year. In addition, the drivers pointed out that there were no laws or regulations on the use of e-bikes in the city, and, as a result, people were driving e-bikes on the road without helmets, posing a risk to themselves and other road users.

Local government officials claimed, without citing any evidence, that everything was in order. In response, the drivers wrote an open letter to the county Party Disciplinary Committee, raising the possibility of collusion between the government and Baimi. Some drivers went further and seized the bikes already deployed, preventing the company from operating.

Drivers in other cities soon followed suit. On 19 July, taxi drivers in Nanbu, Sichuan, surrounded a truck transporting e-bikes, prompting local police to intervene. And on 31 July, drivers in the coastal city of Dalian seized bikes and transported them to an undisclosed location.

The original bike share craze in China ground to a halt in 2018 when major cities, including Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, banned companies from introducing more bikes. The purpose of the ban was to reduce the chaos caused by illegally parked and abandoned bikes. 

However, tech companies evidently see e-bikes as a way around local government regulations, particularly in smaller cities. HelloGlobal (哈啰出行) was one of the first companies to pump e-bikes into provincial cities, and major players such as Didi and Meituan are expected to join. It is estimated that the number of e-bikes will increase from one million in 2020 to eight million in 2025.

The regulations in place at the moment seem to encourage rather than limit the growth of e-bike sharing and that could be the final nail in the coffin for many taxi drivers. However, as the drivers in Xiangyin, Nanbu and Dalian have shown, they will not go down without a fight. Local governments need to prepare for more disruption, and local trade union officials need to stand up for the drivers and make sure their livelihoods are protected.

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