Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Nanjing Cracks Down On Share-Bikes--And Finds A Larger Problem

This past weekend, Nanjing authorities announced that the city was stopping any more share-bike companies from setting up operations, and that it would be ratcheting up supervision of those already in place.

This latest decision comes after many months of deliberation and solicitation of public opinion, as well as growing consternation about the proliferation of those firms—and despite efforts by city officials to coordinate with those companies about who’s responsible for parking, payments, and traffic regulations.

Nanjing wasn’t the only city that declared a pause in the share-bike situation during the past weekend. Even central government authorities weighed in, issuing a guidance directive imploring relevant agencies to better regulate and manage the industry [关于引导和规范互联网租赁自行车发展的意见].

But Nanjing had been ahead of the curve where bike-sharing was concerned. It was one of the first cities to set up its own public bike system and, early on, recognized when share-bike companies started appearing that coordinating government agencies would be crucial for making better public policy. Instead of being heavy-handed with these firms and trying to dictate the terms of trade, Nanjing officials worked to cooperate with them—at least for a time, and the model seemed to be working well enough.

But this announcement is more than an adjustment, for now there are signs of disagreement within Nanjing government circles about what the real problem with the share-bike system actually is.

For example, in announcing the recent decision, Nanjing’s major public newspaper Yangtze Evening Post [扬子晚报] cited the 450,000 shared bikes in the city that created “disorderly parking” [无序停放] as the major problem.

According to the newspaper, its reporter had learned [者了解到] there was little chance of a technological solution in the near future, implying that the sheer number of these bikes were causing “numerous troubles” [不少“麻烦”] with pedestrian traffic, especially at local tourist sites. The problem of quantity, the article asserted, had prompted the city’s announcement of a freeze. There are just too many bikes in Nanjing, not enough space. It’s a physical problem, the newspaper insists.

But the local Party newspaper Nanjing Daily [南京日报] gave a very different reason the very next day. It claimed the actual problem had to do with bike-share companies themselves—that the shortcoming wasn’t physical but fiscal. Some bike-share enterprises were of dubious financial quality, the article stated, inattentive to the needs of customers and more focused on market share and raising revenue. More than a thousand users of one firm in particular, the article noted, still hadn’t received deposits they made to use bikes back in March. “The problem of deposit refunds is a long-standing one” [长期存在押金退款难问题], the paper argued, and should now be seen as financial fraud. Officials, the article in Nanjing Daily notes, are telling residents who have yet to receive refunds to contact local law enforcement.

Those are strong words, and they echo what President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping said in late April—that containing financial risk was crucial to economic work and social stability. Suddenly, what had been presented as a local problem of parking and traffic management is being cast by at least some officials in Nanjing as something potentially more onerous.

Whether Nanjing Daily’s contention is an explanation or a self-criticism--or an appeal for some assistance from the central government—it’s not comforting. That’s because Nanjing officials have been able to persuade Beijing that local challenges are best met locally, solved in-house by the Nanjing government. That's not been an easy argument to make in these days of Xi and hyper-centralisation.

But it’s going to be an impossible argument if the house itself is divided.

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