BEIJING — It began with a comment from a taxi driver that went viral, and turned into a popular critique of China’s one-party rule.
This year, two giant Chinese Internet companies have been engaged in a fierce battle to attract customers to new software applications that allow people to call and pay for taxis with their cellphones — offering big discounts and rebates for using their services.
The competition, the driver observed to a passenger, was making everybody better off; the Internet companies were unwittingly demonstrating the “advantages of the two-party system.”
The passenger posted the comment on social media last month, and netizens soon took up the theme.
“This taxi-calling software, if the government doesn’t ban it, it will make everyone understand why the two-party system is good,” posted a user called Qiubochun Benjamin on the Sina Weibo microblogging service.
In the past few years, the Internet in China had become a vehicle for expanding comment, chat and connectivity. But more recently, the government of President Xi Jinping has clamped down on dissent, censored the Internet and arrested prominent critics, causing the space for free expression to shrink.
Yet that does not mean the power of the Internet to subvert the existing order has entirely disappeared; indeed, as French author Renaud de Spens argues, it is still promoting values inimical to China’s one-party dictatorship — ideas of choice, competition and customer service.
Fast-growing shopping Web sites such as Taobao not only offer consumers the chance to purchase almost anything, have it delivered swiftly and pay only when their order arrives. The sites also offer buyers and sellers the chance to rate each other online in an entirely transparent manner.
“This is very, very new in the history of Chinese consumers,” de Spens said in an interview. “Until very recently, Chinese sellers were not the best in the world. You couldn’t get very good after-sales service.”
China has undergone a shopping revolution in recent years, with its cities full of shops selling the latest luxury brands. It’s a far cry from the 1980s, when Chinese people in search of consumer goods were forced into expensive and poorly stocked government-run department stores staffed by surly assistants. Still, only in the world of e-commerce has the idea of world-class after-sales service really caught on.
With Taobao and its rivals leading the charge, de Spens says, a new concept is taking hold in the Chinese psyche — the idea that you are a consumer with choice, and rights.
It is an idea that could have political and economic repercussions.
“Chinese citizens have already made the link between their relationship with power and their relationship with producers,” he said.
“Until now, people had to take what [those in] power gave them, they had to say ‘thank you,’ and that’s all,” he said. “But on Taobao, they ask, they take, they rate, and if they are not happy, the seller has to give them better service.”
Not everyone agrees there’s a lesson about democracy in the taxi wars.
Bill Bishop, editor of the influential Sinocism newsletter, said the idea of giving huge discounts to consumers to use a service reminded him of campaign tactics in Taiwan in the 1990s, when the country held its first fully democratic elections. Those elections “were all about vote-buying,” he said. “It’s not a very good model for democracy.”
The battle over taxi apps pits Alibaba, the e-commerce giant whose total online transactions are reported to be worth more than those of eBay and Amazon combined, against Tencent, which operates popular messaging services QQ and WeChat and whose annual revenue has surpassed that of Facebook. These are innovative companies with deep pockets and an overriding sense of customer service. Alibaba owns Taobao.
To attract users, the rival companies are offering subsidies of up to 20 yuan ($3.25) to passengers and up to 11 yuan ($1.80) to drivers for using their services. The subsidies typically cover the minimum fare on a taxi meter, making a short ride in Beijing effectively free.
China’s Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, questioned whether this was sustainable.
“Although consumers gain temporarily, as soon as one side monopolizes the market, won’t it be customers who pay in the end?” it asked on its weibo account. “Please remember market competition is not monopoly. Standing out should not only rely on price.”
But the comments were soon ridiculed online.
“Once one party monopolizes the country, in the end people pay the price,” posted one weibo user called wojiaojianghucan-shegekenan, in a typical takedown of the party newspaper. “Please remember political competition is not monopoly. Standing out should not only rely on propaganda.”
De Spens says Xi has been enjoying a honeymoon period since taking over as president a year ago, with his clampdown on corruption within the Communist Party winning him many supporters. But de Spens argues that this honeymoon will not last forever.
“You can see how in the future, the question of the social contract between the state and its citizens will be put up for discussion and debate,” he said. “This prepares the ground, the circumstances, for the world of a democratic China.”
Liu Liu contributed to this report.