The Minister of Transportation, Yang Chuantang, held a press conference on Monday. Through his statements, he clearly showed that the Ministry monitors the successes of 滴滴，神州, and Uber. The Minister encourages and applauds the applications’ efficient sourcing of traditional taxis, car sharing, and carpooling. He does not, however, approve of illegal taxis, also known as black taxis (黑车).
The reasons for the limitation of any type of taxi is to continue to encourage city travelers toward greener options and to keep the taxi traffic capped at eight percent within big city limits. Black taxis are less easily monitored and do not pay the registration and tax fees required for legal operation.
Unfortunately for Elaine* and her seven-year-old son, Boden*, the Ministry started implementing this plan to hammer down all black taxi operations in late February. Elaine shared her story with us on the condition of anonymity, since the authorities and the driver have her information.
A Strange Start
One Monday afternoon well before the Ministry’s press conference was held in March, Elaine and Boden submitted their usual Uber ride request.
“One Uber driver came [to the school parking lot in Shunyi], but then he said he couldn’t take us. That was very strange. I was quite angry because he had seen where we were going.” Though flustered, Elaine resubmitted her request. This same driver returned to the parking lot, but with a different car.
“He said he couldn’t go into the fifth ring road with the other car.”
Considering odd and even days, along with the common habit among drivers to swap taxis, Elaine determined this was a valid reason. The Uber didn’t have any distinguishing features, except for blacked out windows.
Slamming On Black Taxi Brakes
They had just reached Solana at the traffic light next to ZaoYing (枣营) subway station, only 50 meters away from the closest police station.
“We literally just got to the crossroads when all of a sudden, a car used by unmarked policemen cut us off at the traffic light. We slammed on the brakes and another unmarked car came down the side of our vehicle.”
Two men got out of these unmarked cars and came over to the Uber driver’s car.
“Then they proceeded to tell the driver to get out of the car without any questioning. He didn’t get out. He started to argue with them, saying he didn’t do anything wrong.”
They opened the door and forcefully dragged him out onto the road. They handcuffed him and scuffled to gain control. They then put him into the back of one of the unmarked cars.
“Boden was terrified, and I actually couldn’t answer him as to what was going on. I thought the car might have been stolen. I was freaked out since I didn’t think something like this would happen.”
The evolving scene stopped all traffic. None of the cars could get by the three vehicles; one police officer began to direct traffic around the stopped cars, while the other got into the car to question Elaine. Throughout this time, Boden continued to ask her, “What’s going on? What’s going on?”
Parley with the Police
They began questioning Elaine by simply saying, “Uber? Uber? Uber?” She didn’t want to get the driver in trouble, so she denied at first, claiming to be friends with a mutual friend. They insisted, showing her a tablet with Uber cars moving along a digital Beijing map. Then another police officer came and knocked on the window. He relayed to her questioning police officer that the driver admitted to operating through Uber. Her questioning officer knowingly looked back at her. Obviously continuing to deny was pointless.
“So I admitted, ‘Okay, yes. Uber.’”
“Then the police officer pulled out a clipboard and showed me his ID. He told me everything would be okay.”
Even though Elaine could speak Chinese, she played an English-only mute for the majority of the ordeal. Through broken English and simplified Chinese, the police explained that Uber was OK in America, but not in China.
As she waited, they took down the drivers’ details and his car details on a form. Then they requested her details, her address and phone number to enter on the same form.
“I just gave them my business card, but then they wanted to see my phone.” Shocked and reluctant to hand the phone over, Elaine responded, “Why do you want to see my phone? This is my phone. You can’t just look at my phone.”
They told her they needed to see the app, most likely to confirm the use of Uber, but if she was uncomfortable with giving the phone to them there, they could go someplace else to look at the phone. Since Boden was quite upset and she wanted to comfort him as quickly as possible, she decided to open up the app.
“Now there were two policeman in the car, and one of the officers was also trying to comfort my son.”
He spoke in Chinese, “It’s okay. We’re the police. Everything is okay. We’re here to protect you. We’re here to keep you safe.”
When they were finished with questioning and she signed the form, they started acting much nicer and asked where she lived. They explained over the radio that Boden was upset, so they were going to take them home in the Uber car then return back to the location of the incident.
“I haven’t heard anything from the police since, but the driver contacted me on WeChat. He apologized, offered an excuse and an invitation to his peach farm,” Elaine laughed. “He also gave me a hongbao to refund the money.”
She added later, "Uber has been in contact with me, and they are looking into [the details of the event]as well."
For Elaine and Boden, No More Uber
Although Elaine considers the conduct of the police with her and her son to be professional, witnessing the forceful events with the driver has ruined Uber for her for good. She pointed out that now the police have her details. Elaine assumes that if she is stopped in an incident with Uber again, her name would appear again in their database.
“I would obviously know it’s illegal, but still be doing it. So what would that [imply]?”
“Now me and my son joke around when we see a police car. ‘Oh! Are we going to get a lift home?’ My son absolutely refuses to get into any black taxis and insists on city approved taxis.”
Ironically, I heard about Elaine and Boden’s frightful story on the same day as the Ministry’s press conference. Finding a traditional taxi the next day was quite hard in my little Beijing suburb. One driver told me, “Today is busy.”
When I asked if it was because black taxis’ weren’t allowed to drive, he laughed.
Although there is only speculation that the government is able to track Uber cars, parents need to make an informed decision on the risks of black taxi usage, especially when children are involved.
A friend who sent me the summary of the Ministry’s conference explained, “Black taxi drivers have told me they can get a refund from their referral company if they can prove they’ve received a fine.”
Therefore, there is little incentive to avoid providing illegal driving services when the demand is hot. Until that demand fizzles out or black taxis white out, the battle between illegal drives and the Ministry will continue to rage.
*Names have been changed.
Photo: Thomas Leth-Olsen (flickr)