Welcome to China-India Networked (CIN) ft. Didi & Platform Safety
A newsletter highlighting the "networked" relationship between China and India through translations, curated reading, and commentary.
Welcome to the inaugural edition of China India Networked (CIN), a bi-weekly newsletter featuring one English translation of an article from Chinese media, as well as curated readings + commentary, from me, Dev Lewis.
The CIN newsletter is meant to be a ‘China-India’ lens to highlight the networked relationship between the two regions at the intersection of technology, society, and politics, featuring local voices from these two countries, and the wider Asian region.
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The China India Networked Newsletter is by me, Dev Lewis. I’m a Fellow at Digital Asia Hub and Yenching Scholar at Peking University, where i’m conducting research on the Social Credit System and data governance. Follow me on Twitter @devlewis18 or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve been toying with the idea for a while now, and I want to h/t several excellent newsletters that I’ve leaned on for inspiration and ideas: Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, Matt Sheehan’s Chinafornia, Jeff Ding’s ChinaAI newsletter, Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View, and Jordan Schnieder’s China EconTalk. An Asian lens on China-tech is still a premium and I hope more people fill this vacuum. Shout out to Manoj Kewalramani’s Eye on China weekly news bulletin and Hu Jianlong's Passage which features on-the-ground reporting on Chinese technology companies in India.
Finally, this is a pilot issue. I intend to tweak and play around with different formats and content towards creating a newsletter that you want to read. Welcome feedback and comments, find me on Twitter @devlewis18 or email me email@example.com
The first piece to kick off the CIN Newsletter is an article on Chinese e-hailing company, Didi: After the homicide cases, the sound of Didi rises again.
This mammoth 9,500 word article chronicles the reaction, restructuring, and soul-searching within Didi, in the aftermath of the two big murder and rape cases in May & August 2018 that rocked the company. Since then Didi shut down its shunfeng service (car hitching, at the time its most profitable, as the article reveals), and officially re-branded from a ‘technology platform’ to a transportation service platform with a new motto "All in Safety".
Several themes and questions raised in the piece are at the heart of a debate happening globally, and in India: are these companies just "platforms"? What is the responsibility of a platform? How does a platform operating at this scale manage critical issues of safety of its drivers and passengers? How do we think about the socio-economic impact of algorithmic governance?
All at a Didi/China scale.
The article is loaded with revealing quotes from senior Didi execs:
“at its core (Didi) regarded itself as a high-tech platform and lacked any consideration or awareness about the kind of scenarios that could arise in society”.
"When we joined the company we thought that we were in the Internet business. Who could have thought about the relationship between business and human life?”.
"(Didi’s work is) 40% like a policeman, 30% like a judge, and 30% like neighborhood committee ‘aunts’.
- Lai Chunbo, Vice Chairman & Security Response Center head.
"We thought we were an Internet company. Our product and team managers are not able to adequately assess the situation, their knowledge and awareness of human nature, as well as sense of responsibility was insufficient."- Cheng Wei, CEO.
"Repetitive and rigid problems are solved with artificial intelligence and machines. People must deal with the gray." Invoicing, cost disputes, and other such services have been automated within the Didi app…. first-line customer service will soon be “liberated” by automation, allowing more people at the second-line customer service to deal with the more difficult "people" problems. - Liu Xidi, deputy general manager, Didi Experience Service Development Platform.
Some data points that reveal the scale of Didi's operation in China:
Didi scale: 550 million users, averaging 30 million rides/day; 10 billion rides/year.
More than 1 million inquiries/day to customer service center. Machines handle 50%, staff of 10,000 employees handle the other half.
Sexual harassment: 2-3 complaints/ million rides i.e. average of 60-90 per day; Didi’s Security Response Center now also includes a dedicated sexual harassment team made up of 24 members— all women
85% of Didi’s cars have audio recording capabilities on board to monitor drivers and passengers; Limousines and ‘Superior cars have video recording.
There is a lot to unpack in the piece.
Those of us living in India in 2014 all remember the major rape scandal that led to a temporary Uber ban, not just for the act itself, but for Uber’s lack of due diligence when onboarding drivers, and later attempting to prove that the victim was part of a conspiracy by its competitor Ola to defame Uber. Women's safety and how Uber and Ola are dealing with it continues to be an issue. In India, Ola and Uber continue to experiment with different features, such as an SOS button for passengers and drivers, which Didi also implemented in 2018. Didi has also begun to hold online polls to court online public opinion on thorny questions, such as placing recording devices in vehicles.
The news of driver strikes in India is also common place, with complaints ranging from falling pay and irregular changes in rules and incentives. This is a new class of ‘digital labour’ governed by algorithms, created by, and optimised for, the platform. Littered with seemingly bizarre stories but evidently common place interactions between passengers and drivers, this piece raises several issues that Didi drivers face as they try to maintain high scores that determine their livelihood, facing the risk of being kicked out of the platform at the whim of an unhappy passenger.
The issue of safety in the transportation industry is an old one and the core problem may lie in flawed individuals/societies. As interfaces for interactions, tech platforms can exacerbate these problems at scale, and need to employ frameworks from multiple disciplines out of the realm of computer science, to better understand the wider implications of the technology they build.
These are some of the issues we at Digital Asia Hub have been looking at since 2016. Noopur Raval’s work on gig economy in India, first opened my eyes to thinking about labour and algorithmic governance. Check out an initiative she’s leading, Mapping Digital Labour in India, along with CIS Bangalore. For further insight into the role of platform companies like Didi in China, check out the work by Dr. Yulie Chen and Jack Linchuan Qiu of Chinese University of Hong Kong, who look at, among many things, Didi as a digital utility. The executives working at Didi quoted in this piece should be reading their work and incorporate researchers like them into their teams.
The Chinese ecosystem seems to evolve in a vacuum from much of the world, yet so many of the challenges it grapples with are relevant to other Asian countries. As India continues to scrutinise and better regulate platforms at home, its worth learning from the experiences of Chinese companies. I was living in Shanghai when the 2018 incidents took place and was taken aback by the velocity of criticism and the reaction from Didi to shut down its service at night for a whole week!
Read the full piece in its entirety.
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