Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Small Socialism: Now It's Time To Car-Share in Nanjing

Apparently because shared bicycles aren’t enough of a challenge, Nanjing has decided to embrace shared cars.

According to a report on Tuesday, 200 Chery eQ electric cars will be available through Gofun Chuxing (Gofun 出行--a Beijing-based state owned firm already in 4 Chinese cities) for use by anyone with a driver’s license and identity card and a 699 yuan deposit by the end of April. Many vehicles will be based at subway stations, while others will be parked at business centers, software and innovation parks, university campuses, and the city’s historical and tourist sites. Prospective users will do much the same as they do for share-bikes:  download the app; locate where the nearest car is parked; use their phone to scan and unlock the car lock. Charges will be based on the length of time the vehicle is used and the kilometers traveled. Coupons and other discounts will be offered, mirroring the current bike-sharing situation, where price wars are growing increasingly common.

But what’s different is that unlike the private bike-share business that burst upon Chinese cities this year far faster and deeper than spring itself here, the car-share program is a direct outgrowth of the Nanjing city government’s plan to deal with traffic problems. Last year, Nanjing issued a “New Energy Vehicle [新能源汽车] Promotion and Application Program" document which urged the expansion of charging stations in residential compounds, hotels, commercial areas, tourist attractions, institutions and enterprises, and the allocation of free parking electric and hybrid cars.

Nanjing officials recognise that they can’t halt migration into the city from the countryside and its concomitant social effects: Their primary purpose in programs such as this one is to prevent educated and affluent residents from moving elsewhere. Offering a variety of government-sponsored services designed to address citizen needs—and their complaints--is a major part of that strategy. Nanjing knows that economic growth only goes so far these days.

So this is local policy generated locally, not firms parachuting into Nanjing and acting as grassroots agents for economic growth in place of the State. Call it “Small Socialism”—providing ways and means for State authorities to tackle sudden entrepreneurship locally. If there’s sharing in this new shared-economy, government officials want to be the visible hands offering and regulating it, ruling the roads it builds.

To that end, Tuesday’s news report reveals a somewhat defensive tone in announcing this shared-car venture, probably because the local government is concerned about objections and problems to come, and has had some experience in previous months with initiatives that didn’t quite flower.

For example, the article admits that while “from sharing bicycles to sharing cars, the sharing economy bring conveniences to the lives of ordinary people, the arrival of the new economy is often ahead of existing infrastructure and regulations, and producing new issues to those managing the city.” Car-sharing ventures in China currently are at best breaking even, according to the piece. While there is demand from students and recent graduates, tourists, enterprises and work-units, the real profits are likely to be found through other means, such as advertising on the cars being driven, financing, insurance and other value-added services [增值业务] increasingly associated with “Big Data”. Decreasing the carbon tire-print of cars is one goal, but making money is obviously another.

One foundation for a successful program could well be the availability of free parking for shared-cars, because that facilitates access for likely users and improves the turnover rate. With only 40 of those sites in operation currently (and many of those on the city periphery), Nanjing government is looking into subdividing some of the high-use parking facilities downtown (and at the rail stations and airport) into free slots for electric and hybrid cars. (High parking fees in locations handicapped two car-sharing companies that were trialled in Nanjing last year.) Creating areas where residents can rent a bicycle (or motorcycle) and also transfer to an electric car might be one way forward, the article notes--and it may help to reduce traffic congestion brought about by more vehicles on the city’s many narrow avenues.

There are other obstacles, including convincing potential customers that there aren't steep downsides.

For example, one resident interviewed did acknowledge that while he found the option of a shared-car inviting, he worried about what to do if there was an accident or a traffic violation in the car he would be driving. The piece contended that the new venture would be offering a non-deductible insurance policy for customers, while urging drivers to deal with any violations and fines themselves.

How that component of conduct will be incorporated into the fast-expanding data collection part of Nanjing’s urban management system isn’t being made clear. In so many ways here, local officials in China are still working on the rules of the road.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Wheels and Words, or Did Nanjing City Officials Just Seize The Handlebars?

A lot is made by some outsiders of the anxieties that China’s leaders must feel about declining economic growth, rising unemployment, an unraveling natural environment, and the prospects of social unrest. We're told that Beijing is worried and that’s why President and Party chieftain Xi Jinping and his comrades are cracking down, to tighten control against the inevitable onslaught from the middle class, the poor, laborers, disaffected farmers—the list goes on.

Much of that argument is absurd.

It’s absurd in large part because we never actually see an actual argument: What’s presented as established fact is actually a presumption, a premise twisted into a conclusion. No one ever provides evidence from the Chinese-language state media, or conversations with officials themselves, many of whom exude confidence and conviction, not panic, when you speak with them privately. 

This tendency to over-predict by projecting perspectives and values on Chinese officials occurs because many observers don’t look at the State media or spend much time on the slippery ground that makes up this country. Local problems almost always get resolved locally. And the overwhelming majority of problems here are here—that is, they’re local, not national. So, like the various and sundry forecasts of economic bubbles bursting here, mass protests have not broken out in part because nothing in China is linear for very long. 

What’s just as bad as these predictions (which become predilections) based on what-haven’t-you is that if one is not looking at the words being used in Chinese political discourse, real evidence—words as actions—gets ignored. In China, words are actions. Ignore them, and one ignores changing realities.

There are signs of a changed reality here in Nanjing. The Nanjing news media (including the authoritative party newspaper here) Thursday used two rather important terms in its reporting on the bike-share challenges local government is facing here: (chaotic) and下发整改工单 (the issuance of orders to rectify work).

There's background to this shift.

More than two weeks ago, the Communist party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily admonished cadres and citizens alike that the bike-sharing phenomenon shouldn’t "become disorderly [无序发展]”. The term they used then--无序--denotes “a lack of order”, and the rendering in the central party newspaper was meant to tell officials and share-bike firms alike to steer carefully or else.

Now, the terminology—at least in local media here—has moved. Quite suddenly, the bike-share situation in Nanjing is being characterized as chaotic, messy—in other words, bike-sharing here has become disorderly after all, and that needs to be fixed. The repairs being undertaken thus far are administrative but they are robust. China’s governance is after all about thumbs, not fingers. It sometimes shakes hands, but isn't afraid to twist arms.

For example, the reports note that Nanjing’s city-level Urban Management Bureau announced that it would be henceforth holding monthly meetings with bike-share companies, in particular to coordinate the management of parking. The firms are also instructed to “commit to scientific and rational delivery of vehicles, and do routine inspection and supervision” and to start hiring more people and paying more attention to how it’s managing its operations.

In short, the bike-share companies are being told that the city government here doesn’t trust them to police themselves.

Interestingly, there’s no indication that the bike-share firms were consulted or agreed to such measures; indeed, it’s likely that they weren’t and they didn’t. 

That’s hinted at because of the second shift in terminology, away from consultation [商量] or “for further consideration” [磋商] to something is now very much a command--下发整改工单--giving instructions to lower levels to make the changes necessary to achieve their work goals. It’s a clunky translation into English, but it’s essentially directing departments to do their job because the bike-share situation has become unsustainable. Instead of the “Opinion” [征求意见稿] posted just a few days ago, Nanjing government has issued orders. The days of discussing policy options with bike-share companies here may well be over. City officials seem to be running out of patience.

Which is not to say that the bike-sharing situation in Nanjing has become one of turmoil [动乱]—a word in the political lexicon here that would signal social unhappiness and unrest. Nor is there any sense that local officials are panicking, afraid that people are about to hit the streets to protest bikes either blocking their way or the government not doing enough to manage the situation. As the announcement in Nanjing Daily noted, “the bike-sharing disorder in Nanjing is still within the controllable range, [limited to certain city districts], and not a large-scale phenomenon.”

In other words, it’s chaotic, but not chaos-which is a crucial distinction here in China. It means that the situation is still fixable, and the city government is quite comfortable in acting unilaterally and preemptively. But unlike many international commentators, Nanjing officials aren’t waiting for an investment bubble to burst to cure the problem, but making policy based on the assumption it won’t.

At the same time, the city government surely recognizes that there are many local scenarios, from a street confrontation between riders and merchants that gets out of hand, to sabotage of bicycles by one firm or another in an effort to corner the market. Nanjing authorities might actually welcome one or more of the companies involved to fail and withdraw from the market; be absorbed by the competition; or enter into an exclusive deal with the city and its own extensive bike-sharing system. Right now, this is a city-level matter (rather than an urban district or provincial one), and officials here want to keep it that way, because they clearly believe that they know their byways better than Beijing. Dealing with fewer bike-share firms would make matters easier for local authorities.

And yet no one can know how this is all going to turn out on the ground here. Nanjing’s efforts may turn out to be a model for other local governments in addressing the bike-sharing challenge--or that even its novel attempts to preempt problems could end up to be too little too late. It’s an exaggeration at this point to say that how Nanjing goes in the bike-sharing problem, so goes the nation. But maybe not much of one soon.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Sharing Responsibility So You Can Still Share Bikes In Nanjing

On Friday, Nanjing officials announced that they’ve decided to further investigate what needs to be done with the growing bike-share enterprises here.

And in doing so they’ve signalled what matters to them about this growing challenge for local governance--actually being able to make and coordinate policy.

On Friday, the city’s Municipal Transportation Bureau [市交通运输局] issued the draft of an Opinion [南京市促进网约自行车健康发展的若干意见]—a common administrative measure—“draft for comment” [征求意见稿] designed to solicit public reactions for a 24-day period before regulations are brought into force. Some local governments bury such announcements, hoping that no one notices or cares. Nanjing doesn’t dare: its citizenry is far too attentive and officials much too connected and invested here to rely on that tactic.

Among the proposals in the Opinion are that bike-sharing firms will be required to provide real-name registration of users; set up operation-and-maintenance teams for the bikes; purchase personal accident and third party liability insurance in case of accidents; prohibit children under the age of 12 from using bikes; and create measures by which shared bikes are not distributed within residential areas as well as pickup those bikes that are illegally parked. The account in Nanjing Daily also mentions that at least one of the bike-share enterprises has enlisted local university students and volunteers to help police the placement and use of their particular brand of bicycles, essentially so that the local government doesn’t do that for them.

In addition, the Opinion notes that bike-share enterprises must make plans to tie-in their operations with Nanjing’s overall transportation management system. That’s to say, violators of these regulations would be treated the same as those who contravene city traffic laws when they’re driving a car or riding a motorcycle.

That’s an ambitious agenda for a new problem. Nanjing is clearly not trying to ban bike-sharing, but make this very new phenomenon part of urban management initiatives here and in a growing number of Chinese cities—that is, where individual behavior becomes part of a collective assessment of one’s “social credit”. That is, if you ride, break or park a shared-bike illegally, it will become part of your permanent record. Suddenly bike-sharing is part of this new social portfolio.

All that makes sense insofar as policy is concerned—and in particular, the issuance of an “Opinion” instead of a directive. Nanjing’s opening attempt to deal with the bike-sharing challenge here took some residents by surprise, and citizens made their dismay known. City officials clearly want to make sure that pushback doesn’t happen again just because no one bothered to ask residents what they thought.

At the same time, it’s important to restate what occurred here in Nanjing: Nobody demonstrated, protested, or shoved city government here into doing what they wanted—in part because there is no “they” here in China; the country is far too far-flung and diverse for generalizations. What actually happened was that officials here examined where they fell short earlier this week, and decided that they better make better public policy by being comprehensive and consultative at the same time. For those looking for civil movements in China challenging political authority, this isn’t one of those (and good luck finding any of that here anyway). This is just smart policymaking, after a stumble—a city government looking to do better by its residents and itself (and staving off Beijing from trying to do something that’s unfit for Nanjing’s situation).

And yet what’s even more important in this announcement—this “Opinion”—is that—well, Nanjing Daily summarizes the issue rather nicely:

For the first time, [with this Opinion] the management responsibilities of various Departments about shared bicycles were made clear. The Traffic Administration Department is responsible for supervision and management of the industry; the Planning Department is responsible for improving the slowdown in the traffic system [brought about by the proliferation of shared bikes]; the Urban Management Department is responsible for parking order in terms of guidance and supervision and management; the Traffic Control Department is responsible for registration of the card and traffic management; and other relevant Departments—Commercial Vehicles, Quality Supervision, Network and Complaint Office, the Office of Finance, the Nanjing Branch of the People's Bank of China—are responsible for the implementation of other relevant supervision and management matters.
In other words, let’s all make sure we’re riding in the right lanes where policymaking is concerned.

That’s more important than it might seem.

Creating actual public policy in Local China--that is, an organised official response to a perceived social problem--by coordinating responsibilities in the bureaucracy is tough. It's also one of those challenges in China that’s largely ignored by analysts who seek out social change that’s driven by activists and NGOs. Of course there are individual instances of the latter, but that’s all they are: instances, rarities that might make good reading but don’t produce actual reform. That’s what local officials do (call it "grassroots governance"), and that’s what occurring here in Nanjing where shared-bikes are concerned. It may not be exciting stuff; but it's the stuff of which Chinese society and Chinese citizens are concerned with--because it’s about their lives and rights as they are, not as some might wish them to be.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Park Your Policy Here For Now, But Not Your Bike

It’s not a clampdown, but the beginnings of a finding some way forward on bike-sharing, at least in one part of Nanjing.

Today’s edition of Nanjing Daily [南京日] carries the news that Xinjiekou [新街口]--the center of Nanjing and its main shopping district--has begun to institute changes to the ways in which share-bikes are distributed and parked there. According to the report, spaces to leave share-bikes for use will now be limited, and after 30 minutes, the affiliated company must remove share-bikes that are not being used.

These measures are clearly stopgaps to deal with the growing problem of bike-sharing in localities here—one which the account states, at least in Nanjing’s central shopping area, “has become more strained” [更加紧张].

The Xinjiekou Administrative Management Committee—one of the many departments and bureaus here that oversee zones (instead of having a specific policy portfolio, such as transportation in general)—stated that since January, six separate bike-sharing companies have appeared in Nanjing, and that while the local government isn’t out to prohibit their activities, “there are 0.37 square kilometers of the Xinjiekou core area, and the non-motorized parking area [that is, anything that isn’t a car or a delivery truck] can only accommodate 2500 to 3000 non-motor vehicles.” The problem, according to Director Lu Minmin [陆敏敏], is that “a lot of people after the end of shopping, often choose subway, bus, taxi and other ways to leave,” and the resulting pedestrian traffic is often heavy. The sudden influx of shared-bikes competing for already tight space has made sidewalks more difficult to park on and to navigate.

One parking attendant quoted in the article estimated that recently there are hundreds of shared bicycles competing with electric bikes, motorcycles, and other vehicles for parking spots, many of the latter piloted by people employed in the area and forced to find spaces away from their workplaces. “The local operators are trying to maintain the order of parking,” Lu noted, “but because of the lack of manpower, it’s only a drop of water in the ocean [杯水车薪].” Something had to be done, has to be done, or at least tried.

This is not some draconian directive being announced that Nanjing city authorities will implement from above without further consideration or consultation. Nanjing doesn’t work that way. In fact, the report noted that “Qinhuai District parking facilities management center director Fang Xiaojun [方晓俊] suggested that the various operators should establish an autonomous coalition…to coordinate ways in which to allocate and maintain order for bike-share parking.” So there's room for discussion and options.

Interestingly, Nanjing Daily—in what is surely an effort to convey the sentiment that options other than outright bans exist—has a lengthy article a few pages later, extolling the bike-sharing programs currently operating abroad, with nary a critical word to say about any of them. That positive presentation signals that there’s still a strong chance that whatever is done here to deal with the challenges of bike-sharing can still be brokered locally in Nanjing, instead of being imposed by Beijing in its usual Our Size Fits All approach.

Which doesn’t mean that coming up with a new approach for Nanjing is going to be straightforward. Indeed, there were signs of incoordination from the start.

Nanjing authorities didn't do their best job of announcing this new policy—which is striking in a small way at least because they're usually as proactive in soliciting views and notifying the public as they are in policymaking itself. But here word of the new restrictions first appeared on social media here as bike-share riders reported being told to park elsewhere; the aforementioned Xinjiekou Administrative Management Committee gathered local reporters together to announce what they were up to after those reports started causing concern. Somewhere there was a communications breakdown, probably because it was a Monday when all government officials are tied up in meetings to greet and plan the new week. It’s also possible the delay was intentional, to test local reaction, and go with what various officials could agree on for the time being.

The larger point to be made here is that this is yet another case of local issues in China—the ones that really matter to residents far more than what’s too often reported on (non-existent environmental or feminist movements, widespread outrage at Seoul, and so on). While the narrative told by more than a few observers bound to the Beijing-Shanghai Beltway is about the potential for problems--too much expansion too fast, too much credit, and another bubble in China that’s also set to burst, leading to citizen outrage and cries for democracy--actual inhabitants here see matters rather differently. This is not rulers and ruled fighting against each other, but each struggling to make ways without making too many bumps. What’s happening is not easy, but nor is it violent or unstable. From a local perspective, it’s people trying yet again to find ways to share the various roads they have to ride and walk on.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Beijing Signals Bike-Sharing Shouldn't Be Disorderly

Tuesday’s edition of People’s Daily hints that the bike-sharing industry could be about to get a stick in its wheels.

In a commentary on the flagship newspaper’s opinion-editorial pages, the author, 明朗 or “Forthrightness”—a glib pseudonym for authoritative opinion being passed along from Beijing to alert lower-level officials —notes that bike-sharing has become a hot topic on social media, in online forums, and at local public meetings.

The author states that “objectively speaking, sharing bikes better solves the problem of the last mile of urban traffic”—a nod to the notion in China that local governments need to find innovative ways to deal with new problems by connecting with citizens on issues that matter to the latter more than the usual macro-policies of economic development. In other words, by providing city dwellers with more local options for transport, the article is saying, bike-sharing initiatives seemed to provide at least a partial solution, a helpful convenience.

But in the past few months, according to the article, “negative public comments have surged”, becoming part of a larger discussion about “national quality” []  and uncivilized behavior. The commentary contends that “what’s a convenience has also been inconveniently chaotic”, citing “damage to vehicles, space being illegally occupied, private property being encroached on, bike deposit processes that are opaque, and [instances of] bicycle operation mismanagement”. The author argues that while some of these problems are understandable because “bike-sharing is still in a stage of ‘adolescence’, the crazy chase for capital funding amidst disorderly competition raises the problem of how to better integrate [these private initiatives] into overall public management of society.”

That’s Party-speak for the very real possibility of more regulation and control. First, there’s the sense that there’s too much public dissension; which then creates conditions whereby authorities (in this case, Beijing) have to step in and exert oversight and management lest matters go off the road. In other words, discussion is good, but it has to be guided. Innovation is admirable, but it can’t produce unhappiness. In the case of bike-sharing, as the commentary puts it, everyone needs to “be soberly aware that [the novelty of these ventures] does not preclude the industry from being guided by rules and regulations, the strong oversight of enterprises, and social supervision generally for the purpose of healthy and orderly development.” Officials are being admonished not to let this new thing "become disorderly [无序发展]”.

The author does convey the sentiment that the goal of preventing further problems “is the aspiration of all parties, who naturally also need to work together to solve” the challenges created by the increase in bike-sharing programs. Whether that involves consolidation in this nascent industry or local governments becoming better at managing the problem isn’t spelled out. It could be that central authorities aren't in agreement on what to do; it may be that they want to give local governments and entrepreneurs a chance to propose solutions from below.

But the warning from at least some central authorities is growing clearer: If the concerned parties aren’t willing to start pedaling together soon, Beijing won’t be reluctant to grab the handlebars.