Didi under fire after suspected murder of female passenger by driver

Photo: Reuters

Didi Chuxing, a leading ride-hailing company in China, is in the spotlight again, but this time it is not because of its cooperation with automakers on the development of shared electric vehicles, but because of a male taxi driver suspected of killing a rosebud passenger.

The 21-year-old passenger, who is identified as a flight attendant, was stabbed to death during the wee hours of May 6 in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, after she called a taxi from Didi's low-priced Hitch service, which pairs up travelers heading to the same destination. The body of the young lady was found on a muddy slope on May 8, said local police.

The police said that the 27-year-old taxi driver is the top suspect in the crime after the exposure of the victim's WeChat chatting records on the day when she was killed, in which the victim told her colleague that she "bumped into a pervert". "He [referring to the taxi driver] said that I am very beautiful and wanted to kiss me," the victim texted the colleague on WeChat after getting into the taxi, according to a screenshot of the victim's WeChat chatting records. Unfortunately, the victim failed to escape the tragedy, even though she was once asked by her colleague to get off the taxi as soon as possible.

The case has become a trending topic on China's social media platforms, with many Internet users, especially those female netizens who frequently use Didi's Hitch service, complaining that the taxi drivers offering the Hitch service already know the information of a potential passenger including appearance, voice, figure and temperament before picking orders, opening a possibility that ill-intentioned taxi drivers only take orders from beautiful female passengers.

Compared with other services available on the Didi platform, the Hitch service has a security loophole in its application requirements, which enables the registered cars to be driven by non-owners. The Paper, an influential news provider in China, reported that female applicants could even succeed in applying for real-name Hitch drivers after submitting photos of the men. The Paper also offered a screenshot of a written rule for the Hitch service, which stipulates that car owners will be held responsible for any damages caused by providing false or incomplete information, in an attempt to take to the woods.

Worse still, the Hitch service has also given birth to a dark industry, which helps applicants with criminal records apply to be a Hitch driver by charging 500 yuan, according to a report by the China Newsweek magazine.

In an announcement released on May 11, Didi admitted that "the suspect took orders by illegally using his father's Hitch account", which applicants can obtain by passing Didi's review procedure, which means that "the facial recognition security system was not activated at midnight". Didi also confessed that it failed to fulfil its duty to handle a complaint about the suspect's verbal sexual harassment before the killing. Therefore, Didi said in the announcement that it will suspend the Hitch service nationwide for a week for rectification starting May 12 and will review the qualifications of the registered taxi drivers on its platform.

Ironically, the suspect's father denied that he owned a Hitch account after Didi published the announcement, according to the Beijing News newspaper.

On May 12, local police found a body in a river in Zhengzhou, the capital city of central China's Henan province, saying that DNA tests confirmed that it belonged to the suspect, who was said to have jumped into a river after abandoning his car, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The reason why the victim was killed is still under investigation.

According to a new regulation on the management of the Internet-based taxi services, which took effect in November 2016, Didi's Hitch service does not belong to the scope of web-based taxi businesses. The authorities make strict qualification requirements for Internet-based taxi service platforms, drivers and cars. For example, Beijing's regulators require that cars used for Internet-based taxies must have Beijing car plates while drivers must hold Beijing's permanent residency. The city's regulators even set strict restrictions on the cars' wheel base.

Zhao Zhanling, a researcher on intellectual property studies at the China University of Political Science and Law, said that the new regulation exempts Didi's Hitch platform from taking responsibility for cars and drivers as the regulation does not define it as an Internet-based taxi service provider.

Based on the new regulation, the Hitch platform only serves as an information intermediary between drivers and passengers, who are paired up because of the shared destination, said Deng Xueping, a Shanghai-based lawyer. But Deng said that the Hitch platform should bear civil liability for the killing of the flight attendant.

Besides an apology, Didi has promised to compensate the flight attendant's family for their loss.

The death of the flight attendant has sent a warning bell to China's Ministry of Transport, which announced on its official WeChat account that it will improve the regulation for the ride-hailing companies after the tragedy.

The case in Zhengzhou is not the first of its kind involving a Didi driver. In May 2016, a 24-year-old Didi driver, who signed up to work for the company by offering false information, confessed that he killed a young female passenger and dumped her body in a remote region of the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, fueling public fears over the lack of government's regulation on the booming taxi-hailing market. At the time, some industry insiders said that Didi just stayed focused on employing drivers to grasp the market share, thus paying less attention to security management.

Ahead of this year's Spring Festival, Didi released statistics showing that the number of Hitch drivers jumped to 30 million in 2017, during which the daily orders on average reached 2 million. The statistics also indicated that 90 percent of the registered drivers on the Hitch platform were male, aged between 25 and 38.

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