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Shanghai has been cracking down on popular apps for booking taxis. They're not allowed to be used during rush hour. The government says they discriminate against older people and those who don't have smartphones. Economists say the crackdown is really a small example of something much bigger: the battle between the government and market forces in the world's second largest economy. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from the streets of Shanghai.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So it's almost 6:00 in the evening, and this is an impossible time to get a cab unless you use the app. The app that I have is called Didi. And I'm going to tell them where I am and where I'm going. And I'm going to have to add some money in about 10 quai, which is about $2. And let's see if anybody wants to take me home.
In China, people don't tip cabbies. If you're using an app at rush hour, though, you have to promise a tip in what is essentially an open bidding war to land cabs. The sound-enabled app alerts me. I've got a deal.
Oh, awesome. Someone wants to - you could just hear that car start starting. That means someone is about a minute away, and they want to take me home for an extra two bucks. Cool.
Many Shanghai hacks swear by the apps. One named Chen says they allow him to plan routes and be more efficient.
CHEN: (Through translator) When a customer gets out of the car, I no longer have to drive around the streets. Instead, I check orders. If another customer is near, I can directly compete.
LANGFITT: The apps are a marketing tool for giant Internet companies. To promote their use, they pay Chen and other cabbies nearly two bucks every time they use an app to book a fare. The apps also save Chen money.
CHEN: (Through translator) Because you know a customer's location and you know how far he is from you, you can save on gas. On average, if I use the apps during rush hour, they can save me at least 30 miles of driving a day and 80 to 100 bucks a month in gas.
LANGFITT: Shanghai government doesn't share Chen's enthusiasm. It says the apps pose a safety hazard. Some cabbies have mounted up to four smartphones on their dashboards. Officials said the apps were, quote, "unfair and had upset the proper order of the city's taxi market." Even the elderly mother of Jack Ma, whose e-commerce company, Alibaba, backs one of the apps, has complained she's had trouble hailing taxis.
WANG GAO: I'm Wang Gao, a professor of marketing. I teach at China Europe International Business School here in Shanghai.
LANGFITT: Wang says those arguments are reasonable, but he thinks the government is driven by other motives.
GAO: What's wrong with it? You know, this is 100 percent market mechanism. Now, the government try to regulate it. This is a struggle between market mechanism and the old planning economy mindset.
LANGFITT: Until the apps came along, the companies, which are government-owned, set the real price for fares and collected about 33 cents each time someone called for a cab. That can add up in a city of more than 24 million. Wang says the apps bypassed the old system and cut into company revenues.
GAO: They would get less and less phone calls. They lose more money.
LANGFITT: Wang says the government is now trying to regain control of the taxi market.
GAO: All the companies are state-owned. This new service kind of hurts their interests. Do you think the fathers and mothers would protect their sons? Very natural reaction.
LANGFITT: Much has been made of China's embrace of capitalism, but - along with transportation - the government still dominates key sectors, including energy, telecommunications, and banking. Wang says vested government interests won't give them up easily.
GAO: You will see the fight between the old system and the old force and the new force. But in the end, the market will win the game because it benefit all the customers.
LANGFITT: The app ban is now more than a month old in Shanghai. Drivers say they are quietly ignoring it. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
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