At 9 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Sheng Li got out of a Didi ride at his office in downtown Shanghai. The ride-hailing company has had a rough ride recently, but for users like Sheng, Didi is still the first choice when hailing a car.
The 28-year-old office worker says he’s been experimenting with other apps lately. He’s noticed longer wait times as Didi struggles amid a “cybersecurity investigation,” temporary removal from Chinese app stores, and lawsuits from angry US investors.
Sheng told TechNode he doesn’t worry about the privacy and security issues the regulators are investigating. “That’s a matter for the state, not us,” he said. For him, it all comes down to price, service, and wait times.
Still, a Shanghai taxi driver surnamed Wu told TechNode that he has shifted his driving time to other platforms including aggregator Amap (Gaode Ditu in China), as there are now “much fewer orders” from Didi (our translation). Some former Didi users even deleted the app from their phones in a show of patriotism, the Shanghai-based driver added.
Founded in 2012 as Didi Dache, Didi has long been dominant in China’s ride-hailing market. It fended off an early challenge from Uber, buying out the US company’s Chinese operations when it left the market in 2016. The most recent estimates put its share at 90% of the Chinese market.
Now, challengers are racing to take advantage of Didi’s troubles. Like Sheng, millions of Chinese users are trying out other ride-hailing platforms. The rivals have begun a price war, offering steep discounts and subsidies to win over users and drivers.
Didi remains the default for most users TechNode met during rush hour interviews in Shanghai. Although Didi apps are no longer available for download on Chinese app stores, those already on users’ smartphones still work.
Chris Sun, a Shanghai-based video producer did not hesitate when choosing Didi to hail a ride to the city’s railway station for a business trip last week. Speaking to TechNode on July 22, Sun said he had no plans to try other services, adding that he “has got used to” Didi, despite some technical flaws such as inaccurate pin locations from drivers (our translation).
Chen Jie, a recent graduate, is also sticking with Didi. The 23-year-old tried Alibaba-backed Amap last year, but immediately switched back to Didi, frustrated by long waits at peak times.
Springing into action
Shopping and delivery titan Meituan, a longtime rival of Didi, relaunched its standalone ride-hailing aggregator app Meituan Dache on July 13, followed by a WeChat mini-app with the same name last week.
Meituan has offered ride-hailing services since February 2017, but shut down its standalone app in 2019 to cut expansion costs. Since then, it’s been available only as a mini-program within Meituan’s main app.
The company has boosted its subsidies to attract users after the long absence. Using a RMB 10 ($1.54) coupon, TechNode paid RMB 23.4 for a nine-kilometer trip on Meituan Dache on July 16 in Shanghai. A ride on Didi for the same route cost RMB 35 on July 2.
Upstart T3, a joint venture of state-owned automakers FAW, Dongfeng, and Changan, is among the most ambitious contenders. From its base of 21 cities and 15 million users in 2020, the two-year-old ride hailer has set goals to enter 15 new cities and add an average daily order of 1 million rides by the end of July, Chinese media reported, citing a company memo.
Daily downloads of the T3 app on iOS peaked at 60,000 million on July 2, later stabilizing to around 40,000. In June, T3’s app was downloaded just 10,000 times a day, according to data from app-tracking service Qimai. Chinese media report that T3 staff have been working long overtime hours as the Nanjing-based company rushes to expand.
Alibaba-owned aggregator and mapping service Amap, launched in 2018, is also offering massive subsidies to both riders and drivers, including RMB 100 coupons for rides and a one-week zero-commission period to new drivers. Amap downloads on iOS have more than doubled since July.
Meanwhile, Tencent and GAC-backed Ontime is offering 50% off coupons plus a RMB 25 incentive to those who invite a friend to use the platform and take their first trip. Not everyone is joining the price war.
Chinese media reported that management at Caocao Chuxing have decided not to drive down prices,, but the company has adopted the infamous 996 work schedule following Beijing’s investigation into Didi.
Didi could be back on app stores later this month. Regulations specify that cybersecurity reviews should take no more than 45 days, and 45 days after Didi’s review began will be Aug. 16. However, the same regulations authorize regulators to extend the review if they find that the matter is especially complex or serious.
Some observers believe that Didi could face significant threats from smaller ride-hailers that are expanding their presence in China’s growing inland cities.
“Didi is mature in tier-one cities but not in second or lower-tier cities. There is still an opportunity for online ride-hailing in China, and Didi will not have a 90% share in China forever,” Tu Le, founder and managing director of business intelligence firm Sino Auto Insights, said during an online interview on July 6.
Didi controlled more than 90% of China’s ride-hailing market share before the government’s investigation into the company. There might be “double-digit” market share redistribution if the subsidy war meaningfully deteriorates the Didi app or mini-program core experience, according to Michael Norris, head of research and strategy at AgencyChina.
The supply of drivers, who are sensitive to subsidy and platform policy changes, will be key to winning the battle. “Didi’s competitors need to poach drivers to the point Didi’s app becomes unreliable to hail a ride,” he said.
“The competitive landscape depends on how hard Meituan pushes. Recall that Meituan, with one eye on its balance sheet, backed away from self-operated ride-hailing in late 2018. Meituan’s foray into community group-buy, including associated financing activities, have primed investors for big moves.” Norris said.
Meituan declined to comment on the story.
Still, at least one ride-hailer has decided to advance at its own pace. Rather than spending lavish sums for a victory likely to be temporary, Shouqi, operated by the namesake automaker, has publicly stated its goal is high-quality development, focusing on passenger and driver safety along with data security. With a footprint in over 170 Chinese cities, the state-backed company is now the country’s sixth biggest ride-hailer but lags far behind Didi in monthly active users, according to figures published by app tracking firm Aurora Mobile in May.
“China’s ride-hailing market has always been strictly regulated. Looking ahead, compliant, healthy, and sustainable development will be the major path for all the players,” a Shouqi spokesperson told TechNode on July 20 (our translation).