A woman was murdered by her driver on a popular hitchhiking service offered by China’s ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing, prompting angry users to urge one another to #DeleteDidi after the news spread over the weekend. The crime came just four months after the killing of another young woman by a driver on the same service.
Didi on Sunday apologized for its “disappointing mistakes” (link in Chinese). Like last time, it suspended Hitch, which pairs drivers and passengers traveling the same route, and promised to make it safer. It also removed two executives (link in Chinese), one in charge of Hitch and the other in charge of customer service, from their roles.
China’s top governing bodies on Monday promised a crackdown on “illegal” (link in Chinese) acts in the internet ride-hailing sector.
The 20-year-old female passenger, identified only by her last name Zhao, was using Hitch on Friday afternoon in eastern Zhejiang province to travel from her home city, Yueqing, to meet a friend a 45-minute drive away, according to local police (link in Chinese). During the drive she sent her friend a message with the word “help,” after which her mobile phone was switched off and she disappeared.
Yuequing police obtained license information from Didi and detained the driver, identified by his last name Zhong, early Saturday. Zhong told police that he had taken Zhao along a mountainous route during the drive, raped and stabbed her, and then pushed her off a cliff. Police said that Zhao’s hands and feet were tied (link in Chinese) when they found her body later the same day. Zhong also tried to get Zhao to transfer some 9,000 yuan ($1,300) to him from her phone, police said.
Didi said (link in Chinese) Zhong, who had no criminal record, had registered with the service using his actual ID documents, but was driving a car using forged license plates. He had passed the facial-recognition required before picking up a passenger—a verification process that was beefed up after the murder of a woman using Hitch in May. Didi received a complaint against Zhong just one day before the murder from another female passenger, who told the company that Zhong had insisted she sit next to him, driven along a remote route, and followed her after she left the car. Didi’s customer service had promised to follow up in two hours but failed to do so.
Didi rolled out its Hitch service in 2015, and marketed it as a more socially networked version of ride-hailing—a way to make friends. “Like a coffee shop, or a bar, a private car can become a half-open, half-private social space. It’s a very sexy application scenario,” said Huang Lijie, the former general manager of Hitch, in 2015 (link in Chinese). At its peak in 2016, Hitch received more than 2 million (link in Chinese) orders in one day. Didi has said it will conduct (link in Chinese) “a reevaluation of the Hitch service’s business model and product logic.”
Didi has 30 million registered drivers across its platform, including Hitch. The service had earlier allowed users to comment on appearance as part of their reviews, with some female passengers reportedly tagged “goddess,” “adorable” or “long legs.” As of May, that’s no longer allowed, and profile images are also no longer visible.
On social media site Weibo on Monday, two of the 10 trending topics related to the killing. One of them, the murder route, has generated more than 70,000 searches as of the time of writing. Some users designed a logo with “die die travel (link in Chinese)”—a pun on the company’s name—and posted it in response to Didi’s statement. The comment has gathered nearly 9,000 likes. Many users also posted screenshots of deleting Didi’s app (link in Chinese), and said the ride-hailing giant would be more careful about safety if it didn’t enjoy a monopoly in the sector. Since 2016, when Uber took a stake in Didi and departed China after a bruising competition with its rival, the Chinese giant has had little competition.
There have reportedly been more than 50 cases where women have been sexually harassed or raped by Didi drivers in the past four years, according to (link in Chinese) local newspaper Southern Weekly. Hitch is the service that has seen the most sexual harassment problems, according to (link in Chinese) a local court in Beijing. Didi suggested audio recording the trips in May, when a 21-year-old flight attendant was killed during a late-night ride using Hitch. The function is available in some cities like Shanghai (link in Chinese) on Didi Express, its main ride-hailing service. Hitch, which is cheaper, is no longer available from midnight to 5am. In the early morning and from 10pm to midnight, drivers can only pick up passengers of the same sex.
“The two incidents have exposed huge operation and management loopholes, and safety concerns in Didi Chuxing,” said a statement from China’s Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Public Security, which called in Didi (link in Chinese) for a talk over the weekend. “They have seriously threatened the rights and travel safety of people, and have caused a very negative influence.” The departments have banned new vehicles and drivers from signing up to Hitch.
Correction: The piece was corrected on Aug.27 to reflect that Didi has 30 million registered drivers in total. An earlier version attributed that number to Hitch alone.