Well, this is a turn up for the books. According to the Financial Times, Uber has
warned its drivers to avoid confrontations with police and rival taxi drivers or risk losing their contracts.
This is not an empty threat. In a statement, the paper notes, the company said it was be tracking drivers via GPS (!). If any of them ignore its stipulations and turn up to protests anyway, it’s going to know about it.
This is a bit of a turnaround: everyone’s favourite taxi app is generally much better known for its libertarianism and its determination to disrupt out-dated regulatory practices wherever possible. It's enthusiastically continued operating despite court bans in markets as diverse as Germany, Portugal, Thailand and India.
So why the shift in tone? The answer, we suspect, lies in which government we're talking about here. The story quoted above relates to Uber's operations in China. The thing that sparked the warning against confrontation, posted on the Chinese social network Weibo, seems to have been the protest which brought downtown Guangzhou to a standstill last Wednesday. From the South China Morning Post:
At around noon on Wednesday, undercover police stopped a driver using the Didi Zhuanche private car-hailing app on Shuiyin Road in the city's Dongshan district.
Fearing a large fine for offering taxi services without a license, the driver sent an SOS message to a social media group used by his fellow drivers, according to Wang Wei, a licensed driver who uses both Uber and the market-leading Didi Kuaidi taxi booking apps.
Hundreds of private car drivers across the city rushed to the scene, Wang said, including himself... “We surrounded the car and tried to force the police offers to let the driver and his car go."
Result: an altercation between cabbies and armed police and several hours of gridlock.
None of this really fits with Uber's plans for its Chinese business. Last week the imaginatively named UberChina subsidiary said it was planning to raise $1bn in new funds to invest in its Chinese business, so as to expand its operations from 11 cities to 50. It's also partnering with a Chinese search engine Baidu Inc, to help raise its profile. Four of the firm's 10 largest cities by trip numbers are already in China: if this growth continues, it'll be the firm's largest single market by the end of the year.
With numbers that big, and a government that scary, Uber seems to have found a new respect for state authority.
The firm may have a lot to gain from keeping on the right side of the Chinese government, but it's likely to face unusually stiff competition, too. The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that Didi Kuadi, a home grown taxi-haling app, is also raising $1.5bn to expand its own services.
Oddly enough, though, while competition between the two firms may be fierce, their drivers seem to be getting on like a house on fire. The driver who triggered the Guangzhou protest was using a Didi Kuadi app. From the SCMP again:
Wang said the incident showed the power of car-hailing app drivers. "[We] have become good friends. We would stand up for each other no matter if it is an Uber driver or a Didi driver who is in trouble."
Unregulated drivers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.
Oh, and possibly your Uber contract.