China’s Uber is courting a PR disaster

Turning their backs on Didi.
Turning their backs on Didi.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
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Didi Chuxing, China’s ride-hailing giant, has had many warnings that it needs to do better on passenger safety, especially for women. News reports have tallied at least a dozen sexual assaults and three murders (paywall) of women using its services in the last four years—with the latest death taking place over the weekend.

The anger it’s facing online—much of it centered on the two statements the company has put out—suggests it also needs to do a lot better in addressing public concerns in the wake of a horrible tragedy.

On Friday, a 20-year-old female passenger was murdered by a driver while using Didi’s popular and cheap Hitch service, which pairs users going in the same direction, according to local police in China’s southern province Zhejiang. Police have arrested (link in Chinese) the driver, identified only by the last name Zhong, and are investigating him for robbery, rape, and murder.

In its first statement, on Saturday, Didi said it felt (link in Chinese) “guilt and shame for such a tragedy taking place as it was trying to fix the Hitch service.” It said it would remove the executives in charge of Hitch and customer service—the company had received a complaint about the driver a day ahead of the crime, but failed to act swiftly—and keep readers posted on its internal investigations. In the same statement, Didi said victims of future crimes that take place while using its services would be compensated with three times the amount required by the law. That offer wasn’t received well.

“This reads to me as buying a life with money… It really makes me feel uncomfortable,” commented (link in Chinese) a Beijing-based user on social networking site Weibo. The comment has gathered more than 10,000 likes and close to 300 responses.

The reference to “future criminal cases” also seemed complacent to many. It can appear to suggest Didi’s leadership is focused on trying to deal with the fallout of crimes, rather than trying to prevent the crimes.

“Future criminal cases… Who are you cursing? No one wants your three times compensation,” wrote another Beijing-based user.

Didi didn’t immediately respond to queries related to the public criticism of its public relations responses. (Update: But on Aug. 28, it offered a new statement of apology from the two founders that seemed to address some of the criticism; the full text of the statement can be found at the bottom of this story.)

The public outcry since the weekend echoed the outrage regarding Didi’s response to the murder of another young woman in May. The company offered a public bounty of as much as $160,000 for “providing key clues” to find the suspect, also a Hitch driver, who went missing after allegedly murdering a female passenger. Many read this as a PR stunt rather than genuine contrition. It’s possible Didi came to agree—the company deleted the bounty-offering post from Weibo.

Meanwhile, in a follow-up statement on Sunday (link in Chinese), people were put off by the prominent mention of the number of Hitch rides since the service’s launch in 2015. “We are sorry the Hitch Service, which served over 1 billion trips in the past 3 years, will be suspended for now because of our disappointing mistakes,” read that statement, in part.

“I feel like it’s showing-off to mention how many billion times you’ve served. You are great,” commented a user based in Switzerland (link in Chinese) on Weibo.

“I truly admire Didi, which is still so arrogant and uses the chance to advertise,” commented another based in Beijing. “Does that 1 billion service suggest ‘don’t make a fuss about this since this is an incident of small probability because so many people are fine’?”

As in other parts of the world, the ride-hailing giant’s failure to adequately address a problem is attracting more government scrutiny—usually not in short supply in China anyway—to the sector. China’s top governing bodies have promised a crackdown on “illegal” (link in Chinese) acts in the internet ride-hailing sector, and officials have been aggressively checking the permits of ride-hailing drivers. And provinces have been ordered to set up passenger safety committees to promptly look into incidents of passenger safety.

Update, Aug. 28: Below is the full text of Didi’s latest statement, issued Aug. 28 in both English and Chinese by public relations company Brunswick, on Didi’s behalf:


The past few days have been days of immense pain. A tragedy struck again after 3 months as we were revamping our safety systems. As founder and president of this company, we are deeply grieved and remorseful. Words are useless in the face of loss of a life. But we still wish to say sorry to the victim, her family, and everyone. We are sorry; we failed your expectations.

We thought we were using technology to build a better world of mobility 6 years ago when we started this business. The tragedy reminded us we have walked this path without enough respect nor humility. Our ignorance and pride led to irreversible pain and loss. We can only ask ourselves what happened.

We see clearly this is because our vanity overtook our original beliefs. We raced non-stop riding on the force of breathless expansion and capital through these few years; but this has no meaning in such a tragic loss of life. Throughout the company we start to question if we are doing the right thing; or even whether we have the right values. There is an enormous amount of self-doubt, guilt and soul-searching.

The only thing we can do at this moment of pain is to face the pain and take on our responsibility. Not a single second shall be lost in solving the problems with our full effort. To bring back what we were here for from day one, this is the only meaningful kind of condolence we could offer to the victim.

In the past days, we looked again and again at the details of the case and the causes behind it. Here are some of the actions we will take.

Today DiDi will stop using scale and growth as our measurement of success. We shall prioritize safety as the single most important performance indicator.  Our organization and resources will be fully shifted towards building strong safety and customer service systems;

Safety products will see overall upgrades, including the optimization of the SOS Button and Itinerary Sharing functions. For user complaints involving personal safety issues, we will use three-way connection to dial China’s police number (110) to ensure information reaches to the police at the earliest time;

The business model of Hitch will be thoroughly reevaluated. Hitch will be suspended indefinitely until there is a safety protection mechanism that is accepted by our users.

We will begin deeper collaboration with law enforcement agencies to establish safety protection mechanism and respond more effectively to requests of law for evidences. Furthermore, we will start testing a newly-developed self-service inquiry system for police.

Safety is an endless journey. We might not be able to eradicate 100% the ill deeds carried out by criminals who might seek to abuse this platform, but we will try our upmost to protect passengers and drivers and continue to drive down crime rate in this industry.

We ask you to continue to monitor our work and give your criticisms all along the way.

There is no excuse for loss of life. Again, we apologize to all.

Cheng Wei & Jean Liu

August 28, 2018