Unusual moves: Stories of Didi and Uber taxi drivers in China

A driver uses Uber to find his customers in Beijing. Photo: Sean Gallagher

The news that a local Chinese government official was investigated by a discipline inspection department after being found to drive taxi for additional income during work time has caused a debate in the Chinese society.

In a catfight over the conduct of Hong Sheng, the deputy chief of a small town in eastern China's Anhui Province who worked as a part-time driver of the ride-hailing app Didi to be able to repay his debt, some people have criticized him for using work time to earn gray income, while others have applauded him for being a capital-starved civil servant to try to solve his financial problem through his hard work at a time when stories about the downfall of corrupt government and Party officials abound.

Hong's case has aroused interest in stories of people serving as web-based taxi drivers in the tide of sharing economy. Here are a few drivers with unique backgrounds.

A SOE department head

Peng San is a Didi driver living in Beijing. The slightly bald middle-aged man normally uses his well-polished wooden bracelet to start a vivid conversation with his passengers. When stopping at the red light, he would ask his passengers to have a glimpse of his bracelet made of Hainan yellow pear wood, a precious timber in China, which he said is an effective way to break the silence in the car.

Since his graduation from a secondary school in the 1980s, Peng has worked for a state-owned telecommunications firm in Beijing for roughly three decades. Being the head of the maintenance department, Peng lived a decent, carefree life with a monthly salary of more than 10,000 yuan, before his company's merger with a larger enterprise last year, when his salary was reduced by nearly half.

During a gathering with his friends, Peng was persuaded to be a part-time Didi driver to offset his salary loss, and he finally accepted the suggestion.

The Beijing local was absent from work for three afternoons, which he spent to run his Didi business, from which he earned about 6,500 yuan a month, almost equal to the salary offered by the telecommunications company. He said that it did not affect his work because he always completed it before lunchtime.

"Compared with my formal job in the telecommunications company, I prefer to be a Didi driver," said Peng, who has a college-going daughter with a middle school teacher. "Every day, I can chat with different people. I can share some knowledge about wooden bracelet with some of them. It makes me feel happier than my old colleagues in the company who just play chess during work time."

But Peng has never thought of leaving his company to be a full-time Didi driver. "If it is discovered by my leaders, I will make an apology and quit Didi in the worst case. After all, I did not leave my work unfinished," said Peng, who has so far completed more than 2,700 ride orders and gets a high 4.87 points in a five-point rating system due to his honesty and sense of hospitality.

Premium Didi car owner 'Teacher Zhu'

The imported Mitsubishi Outlander owner prefers to be called "teacher" by his friends, because he used to teach at a higher education institution in Beijing. And that is the reason why he registered the driver's name as "Teacher Zhu" on the Didi app.

Following in the footsteps of his father, who was a People's Liberation Army officer, Zhu joined the army in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in 1975, where he was assigned to intercept military intelligence code. One of his sparkling memories during his service in the military is his participation in the Sino-Vietnamese border war in 1979 as an intelligence monitor.

After his retirement from the military in 1982, Zhu chose to teach free combat at Beijing Sports University and was later promoted as faculty head.

Fed up with teaching, the former soldier left the university and ran a small business, which he said he just did for a fixed income, till 2015 when he was convinced by an old friend to join Didi as a taxi driver.

According to Didi policy at the time, an old taxi driver can get as much as 300 yuan in bonus if he or she could recruit a new member who could receive 20 ride orders.

Zhu said that he was influenced by the old friend who described being a Didi taxi driver as "following the fashion".

Currently, Zhu only works at rush hours, with the rest of the time used for the management of his small company. He earns more than 3,000 yuan per month on average from his Didi job, which is one twentieth of what he gets from doing business.

A countryman's Beijing dream

Unlike Peng and Zhu, for whom working as a part-time Didi taxi driver is a pastime, this farmer from a village in central China's Hubei Province, who refused to be named, does it for a living.

"Farming just brought me a little money," said the 29-year-old man. He is now a taxi driver of Uber, the American rival of Didi in China, and uses a Volkswagen Bora.

When he was 19 years old, the young, undereducated man came to Beijing with 500 yuan and a bedroll. He served as a waiter at a restaurant in Beijing's Tongzhou District in his early years in the capital, during which he saved up to 30,000 yuan. He then used the money to run a hot pot market stall in rural Beijing.

"I earned some money from running the stall, but it was not easy work," he said.

After finding that the work, which forced him to get up early and sleep late, could not help him support his family in Beijing, he set his sights on working for Uber, which brings him 7,000-8,000 yuan a month at present.

"Except for sleeping, I almost spend the rest of my time on driving Uber taxi including on the weekends," said the man, whose wife is a housewife taking care of their child at home.

He thinks Beijing is not a good place to live because he sees little opportunity here. "The property prices are too high in Beijing. In my hometown, a 200-square-meter house only costs me 300,000 yuan," he said.

He is thinking about returning to the countryside and doing farm work again. "Farming is becoming easier, because we can be helped by machines during the harvest time."

An artist-turned Uber taxi driver

Yang Yi loves wearing a hat and pulling it down over his eyes while driving his Uber taxi. When asked why he does that, he responds with the question "can you guess that I was an artist?"

After his graduation from the university, Yang, who was born in northeastern China's Jilin Province, refused the local government's arrangement to be an art teacher at a local rural middle school, and chose to attend a course to learn tone tuning in Beijing, which was organized by the city's cultural bureau.

The 46-year-old man now has a Beijing permanent residency permit because of his marriage with a Beijing girl who he knew when he was attending the tone tuning course.

He worked as an art editor in Beijing for several years after the marriage. Two years ago, he joined a startup at the invitation of his friend, but the small company later had difficulty in seeking new investment.

Last year, Yang became a full-time Uber taxi driver, after he saw the app bringing benefits to his fellow-villagers. Now, he has to be on the road for 12 hours a day.

Yang felt confused about the criteria the passengers depended on to give a rating to his service, after a passenger, with whom he had a happy conversation during the ride, turned out to give a 4-point rating, bringing his average rating down to 4.9 points from 5 points.

"Nowadays, passengers are God. I do not know what I did wrong," said Yang.

(The article is translated and edited by Ding Yi.)


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