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Uber Spends Heavily to Establish Itself in China

Uber is spending money at a breakneck rate to crack the China market – even paying its drivers more than the fares they collect.

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Fat with almost $6 billion in venture capital, Uber, based in San Francisco, is doling out bonuses up to three times the amount of its fares, in a bet that its exceptional rise in the United States can be matched in China.

So far, its strategy is working, shattering prevailing assumptions that young American tech companies cannot compete against local rivals.

The spending spree has attracted droves of drivers like Jacky, a systems analyst at an international telecommunications company, who recently began moonlighting for Uber with his Ford Fiesta in Shanghai. In late May, Uber said it had created more than 60,000 jobs in China during the past month, with the spread of its service spurring protests from some taxi drivers.

“This is a really great opportunity for me to make some extra money,” said Jacky, 34, who declined to give his full name because he was releasing internal information about Uber.

Though other ride-hailing services also offer driver bonuses, Jacky said Uber pays the most. In the first three weeks of May, he said, he made the equivalent of about $1,000 from Uber – or almost half of his $2,100 monthly salary at the telecommunications company – with the majority of his earnings as a driver coming from the subsidies.

While China represents huge scale as a market, it has fended off the entry of just about every major Western technology startup. Uber, a 5-year-old company that operates in more than 310 cities and 58 countries worldwide, faces homegrown Chinese rivals like Didi Kuaidi, which has more than 90 percent of the market and is backed by two of the largest Chinese Internet companies, Alibaba and Tencent. It also may have to grapple with a fickle central government that could shut it out of the market overnight.

Yet more affluent and cosmopolitan Chinese have flocked to Uber’s service, attracted by fares that are on average at least 35 percent cheaper than taxis, with the cars generally more luxurious than cabs and drivers who offer free water and are typically more polite.

Uber is providing more than 100,000 rides a day in China, according to two people with knowledge of the company’s internal metrics, who declined to be identified because the numbers are confidential. That is about 10 percent of the total 1 million rides a day that Uber said it was getting companywide in December.

In the central Chinese city of Chengdu alone, Uber has attracted 20,000 drivers since 2014, compared with 26,000 in New York City who have come aboard since 2011.

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, is teaming up with the Chinese Internet giant Baidu and making multiple visits to the country, including one last month to the provincial capital of Guiyang in the southwest.

“Uber is doing quite well in the first-tier cities and it’s a bit of a surprise,” said You Na, an analyst at ICBC International based in Hong Kong. “The subsidies make a big difference.”

An Uber spokeswoman declined to comment on the scale of the company’s business in China. Uber is in talks with investors to raise another $1.5 billion or so in a financing that would value it at $50 billion.

Uber still faces many hurdles in China, where the market is highly competitive, regulated and, at times, eccentric. Chinese tend to favor Chinese-branded services, said Mark Natkin, founder of the research firm Marbridge Consulting in Beijing, though sometimes using a globally leading brand – like Uber – has cachet.

Uber has attracted Chinese customers like Li Yufang, 28, a Beijing resident and an employee at a property developer, who switched to Uber in January from other ride-hailing services.

“The reason I love Uber is because the price is really low compared with taxis or private limos,” Li said.

On Chinese social media, jokes that Uber provides a convenient, self-selecting pool of potential husbands for single women have even made the rounds.

Uber began tests in China in late 2013 in the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, focusing on a service that would let people hail rides from licensed limousine companies. Instead of following other Western tech firms, which at times have relied on foreign managers with little knowledge of China, Uber hired and empowered local people to act as managers to run city operations as they saw fit. It now operates in nine Chinese cities.

The company also took a more cautious, cooperative approach in China, unlike in other countries, where it has brazenly flouted authorities. In December, Uber sold a stake in itself to Baidu and began working to offer its service directly on Baidu’s popular maps application. Uber recently earned praise from the head of a major Chinese Internet industry group for behaving more like a Chinese company than like an eBay or an Amazon.

In October, however, Uber expanded a new service that put it on questionable regulatory footing in the country. The service, playfully called People’s Uber after the Marxist language favored by the Communist Party, resembles what Uber does elsewhere by letting private drivers register and shuttle passengers for pay. The service runs counter to what is offered by companies like Didi Kuaidi, which either enable customers to hail taxis directly or use contracts with private limo companies to offer high-end cars at luxury prices.

It also drew scrutiny from local governments since the drivers are unlicensed. In the last two months, local authorities in Chengdu and Guangzhou have raided Uber offices in response to the questionable legality of People’s Uber.

Local traffic authorities in Guangzhou and Chengdu did not respond to requests for comment. At the time of the raids, Uber said it was cooperating with officials. People’s Uber is still operating in both cities.

The raids have spurred driver protests. In Chengdu last month, hundreds of Uber drivers lashed out at the local traffic police after one driver’s car was impounded.

People’s Uber has also prompted a battle with Didi Kuaidi, which last month started its own service for private drivers, called Kuaiche. A few weeks later, Didi Kuaidi announced an initiative to spend 1 billion renminbi ($160 million) subsidizing the program in the form of discounts to passengers and driver incentives.

“We welcome all good competition,” said Jean Liu, Didi Kuaidi’s president, at a May 22 media briefing. “This is our home market; we love this market so much, we want to make sure it grows in a healthy, sustainable, safe way.”

The inducements from both sides are stirring resentment from taxi drivers, similar to what Uber has faced in other countries. In recent weeks, cabdrivers in Tianjin have lashed out at private car drivers.

One woman, whose husband and father-in-law share a taxi in Tianjin, confirmed the protests but declined to be named. She said the popularity of services like Uber has cut what taxi drivers can make during the day by about a third.

Another problem for Uber may be its own drivers. On Taobao, Alibaba’s e-commerce site, vendors run a thriving black market for driver accounts, allowing purchasers to circumvent Uber’s background checks. Jacky, the Shanghai driver, also confirmed reports in local news media that many drivers log fraudulent Uber rides using fake passenger accounts to get some of the bonuses the company is offering.

Uber is not deterred.

“We’re particularly optimistic in China,” Kalanick said in a speech in China last month. “I’ve just seen cities everywhere and have found that mayors and city governments are far more focused on progress in their cities here in China than I’ve seen elsewhere, and it makes me incredibly optimistic.”

© 2015 New York Times News Service

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