Driving home for Chinese new year — in a shared car

Workers take to gig economy in world’s biggest mass migration

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The world’s biggest mass migration has hitched a ride on the sharing economy, with hundreds of thousands of Chinese turning to carpooling for their annual pilgrimage home for the lunar new year.

The holiday season, which kicks off on Monday, will see mass criss-crossing across the country and bottlenecks at stations and on the roads, as tens of millions of migrants return back home from the cities for a fortnight of family.

Yan Chao, a 25-year-old mobile app developer, is one of the 300,000 travellers in the last week of January who opted to forgo these hardships and instead hitch a lift using one of the new and increasingly popular on-demand carpooling services.

As growth slows, state initiatives such as Premier Li Keqiang’s “Internet Plus” strategy are making an accelerated push to fill the cracks in China’s creaking old economy using big data and mobile internet to tackle longstanding problems such as traffic congestion.

But progress is slowed by an inherent fear of new technologies being too disruptive and, as local governments and their taxi fleets are fighting hard for the status quo, many new initiatives stay semi-illegal until they prove sufficiently useful.

Chinese new year lift-sharing was given the green light by the authorities two weeks ago when deputy minister Wang Shuiping said the transport ministry “encouraged” carpooling services so long as they were free.

“Obviously public transport is falling short,” said Sun Liang, a spokesperson for Didi Kuaidi, China’s homegrown Uber equivalent, which operates the carpooling platform Didi Hitch and calculated the number. It predicts 1m journeys by the end of the holiday.

“Six million people standing for sometimes 40-hour train rides . . . with our dense driver network, we thought we could help people share their resources.”

That chimed with Yan Chao. “Using Didi Hitch was about the same price, and it is much more convenient and comfortable,” he said.

Because of its established driver network, Didi Kuaidi’s service, which is currently free of charge, is among the most trusted options, as it comes with insurance and a code of conduct for drivers.

The platform was launched last June as a short-range commuter sharing service that Didi hoped would relieve the “pain point” of China’s nightmare rush hours and help the environment.

But it is not all altruistic: non-profit services such as these help Didi Kuaidi keep customers and the authorities onside — something Uber’s various travails around the world have shown to be a valuable commodity.

The transport ministry’s Mr Wang injected a note of caution, saying he “hopes both sides clarify their interests [before setting off] to avoid unnecessary conflict”.

Yan Chao, meanwhile, laughs off worries of being cheated on the road. “I spoke with [the driver] many times, and confirmed details — including that he would be bringing his dog in the car,” he said. “It’s not a big issue.”

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