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.

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