Chinese ride-services company Didi Chuxing faced a public backlash on Monday following the killing of a female passenger by a carpool driver.
Angry Chinese took to social media to denounce the company, despite its efforts to ease the outcry by firing two senior executives and suspending its Hitch carpooling service following the death of the customer in Wenzhou in eastern Zhejiang Province.
On Monday, "Boycott Didi" emerged as a popular hashtag on Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social platform with 430 million users. Threads under the topic generated more than 1 million views there, with discussion spilling over onto other Chinese online communities.
"For the sake of our family and ourselves, we shall boycott Didi," said a Weibo user under the name of Mama Zhuzhang. Other users have been circulating links to an online commentary called "Boycotting Didi is a way to save lives."
The call for a boycott of China's largest car-hailing company has spread from ordinary citizens to celebrities. Actress Wang Xiaochen posted a screenshot on Sunday of herself deleting Didi's mobile app. The post was liked by more than 280,000 Weibo users in less than 24 hours.
The impact of those campaigns on Didi's business remains to be seen. The Beijing-based company currently has 12 million daily active users nationwide, according to market intelligence company QuestMobile. Chinese business media group Caixin recently put Didi's market share in China at over 90%.
Didi has been reportedly preparing for a possible initial public offering in the second half of the year. It has been expected to be one of the biggest in recent years given the company took the second place in CB Insights' global unicorn list published in August, with a valuation of $56 billion.
Didi's safety problems though come against the backdrop of a ride-hailing war in China as new challengers have entered the market. Meituan Dianping, which was originally focused on meal delivery and restaurant reviews and which is expected to list on the Hong Kong stock market in September, has been rapidly growing its ride-hailing business since entering the market in December.
The Wenzhou Public Security Bureau posted a statement online over the weekend saying that the victim was raped and stabbed by a Didi driver on Friday. The driver, surnamed Zhong, has already been caught and confessed to the murder, the statement said. The victim, surnamed Zhao, was a college student on her way to attend a friend's birthday party, according to Legal Daily, a state-owned newspaper.
Friday's murder was the second of a Didi passenger in three months. In May, a 21-year-old flight attendant was also killed during a ride with Didi's Hitch service in the central city of Zhengzhou.
"As a platform, we have disappointed the public's trust in us and cannot shirk this responsibility," Didi said a statement on Saturday.
Users are divided on how the incident and public outcry will affect Didi, which reached near-monopoly status after acquired Uber's China operations and those of Kuadi Dache.
"I don't think this will affect Didi badly," said Elliott Zaagman, a management consultant at Goldenspan Consulting in Beijing and a Didi customer. "I don't think this is Didi's problem. I see it as a problem of the [carpooling] industry. Uber had problems similar to this. In my opinion, Didi is one of the best run Chinese tech startups."
In its statement on Saturday, Didi said the driver in Wenzhou had no criminal record and provided authentic documentation for registration. But Didi also said that another passenger had filed a complaint against the driver a day before the murder for improper actions, including taking the passenger to a remote place and following the passenger after the ride. The company said it would take the blame for not investigating the complaint.
"Didi should be held accountable for the passenger's death," said Ivan Zhang, a 27-year-old tech worker in Shenzhen who deleted the Didi app from his phone after news of the murder.
"Many friends of mine have done the same," said Zhang, who has switched to using CaoCao, a ride service backed by automaker Geely Automobile Holdings, and who said he had never heard back from Didi about complaints regarding drivers' handling of payments.
"We probably cannot bring down Didi as it is a gigantic company, but we can do our part of the job and add pressure on Didi to make a change," he said.
Didi declined to comment on the ongoing boycott campaign and the impact on its operations.
While it is unclear how long the campaign will last, it is clear that the scandal has hampered Chinese riders' confidence in the car-hailing service. Said Yukin Pang, a public relations specialist in Shenzhen: "If it's a short ride in cities, perhaps I will still go for Didi. But if I will travel somewhere else, say an unfamiliar area, I would not dare to use Didi anymore."