When in China, do as Didi does

Didi driver Zhang Liang has been plying the streets of Beijing for almost two years but says conditions for drivers have deteriorated since Uber left the market. Photo credit: Hans Greimel

BEIJING -- If you're a foreigner who has visited China, this experience may sound familiar.

You are stalled in an excruciatingly long line at the taxi stand in front of your hotel, while smart Chinese customers blithely bounce past you in droves to jump in their hailed ride.

Nothing better underscores the power of Didi in the world's most populous country.

The last time I visited Shanghai, I simply abandoned my taxi quest.

Even cab drivers here use the Didi Chuxing ride hailing app -- China's counterpart to Uber or Lyft in the U.S. -- to snag fares, and the hotel concierge did as well. Without the app, I was sunk.

And even when the hotel entered a ride on my behalf, my destination was repeatedly rejected by drivers as not worth the trouble because the ride was too short, or so I was told.

During my current visit for this week's Beijing auto show, I came prepared. With the Didi's English-version app downloaded and ready to go on my iPhone, I set out in the city.

I don't speak any Chinese, so I was nervous about communicating the details of the final pickup. But everything worked smoothly and my silver Volkswagen Sagitar, the Chinese iteration of the Jetta, pulled up in less than three minutes, driven by 35-year-old Zhang Liang.

The app works mostly like Uber. It translates everything into English and identifies the driver with a graphic of the car, the license plate number and a photo of the driver.

As the car approached, I started getting pop up messages in Chinese from the driver. I could only guess what he was trying to tell me. But the app offered a choice of prepared stock replies in English. When sent, they are automatically translated into Chinese for the driver.

Didi is the force to reckon with in Chinese ride hailing. Uber found it so hard to compete here, that it packed up and sold its China operations to Didi in August 2016. Didi took a $1 billion stake in Uber, and Uber received an 18 percent stake in its erstwhile Chinese rival.

And these days, Didi is turning up the heat on Uber in other markets too as it steps up its overseas ambitions. In the U.S. for example, Didi has a parallel partnership with Lyft, and in early 2016, it introduced a roaming product that allowed Didi owners to use Lyft in the U.S.

That marked the launch of Didi's overseas service.

Since then, it has been busy assembling a broad international alliance. It has partnerships with 99, Brazil's largest local ride-share company; Grab, which is popular in Southeast Asia; India's Ola; and popular European service Taxify. It also has the Middle East and North Africa covered through a strategic partnership with the local ride-hailing app Careem.

And Didi has powerful backers. Investors include China's big three Internet giants: Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. And Apple made waves by taking a $1 billion stake in Didi in 2016.

Zhang left his job at an automotive metal stamping plant nearly two years ago to get behind the wheel with Didi. He takes home about 4,000-5,000 yuan ($635-$800) a month from working six hours a day, Monday-Friday. Living with his parents helps him stretch the paycheck.

While shuttling people around town beats the back-breaking factory work, Zhang says conditions have gotten worse since Didi squeezed out Uber to dominate the field.

"Now there's no serious competition, so they do whatever they want to the drivers," Zhang says. "Before, it was easy to get bonuses, but they raised that bar. So, I'm thinking of quitting."

What would he do next? "Maybe I'd be a chauffeur for company executives."

Yang Jiang contributed.

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com -- Follow Hans on Twitter: @hansgreimel

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