Chinese web firms delete more than 60,000 accounts as new rules loom

Wall Street Journal: (by Josh Chin)

Chinese Internet companies have deleted tens of thousands of user accounts as the country prepares to enforce new registration rules that will further cement government control over online discourse.

A total of more than 60,000 accounts across a number of Chinese Internet platforms were deleted in recent days, chiefly because of misleading or harmful usernames, the Cyberspace Administration of China said in a statement dated Thursday. Among them were accounts that masqueraded as government departments, carried commercial names such as “Come Shoot Guns” and “Buy License Plates,” spread terrorist information or sported erotic avatars.

Unverified accounts falsely claiming to represent state media were also shut down, the agency said, adding that it covered everything from microblogs to chat accounts to online discussion forums. Companies listed as having taken part in the cleanup included top U.S.-listed Chinese tech giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. , Tencent Holdings Ltd. , SinaCorp. and Baidu Inc.

The comprehensive creation of a clear and bright Internet space requires active and positive conduct from enterprises,” the regulator’s statement said.

The new rules aim to further tame the country’s already tightly controlled Internet by prohibiting the use of deceitful or harmful identities and requiring Internet users to submit genuine personal information when registering for online services. They were announced earlier this month and go into effect March 1.

China has attempted to implement similar limits in the past, with mixed success. The current effort, however, arrives at a time of intense ideological and political tightening as Chinese President Xi Jinping moves to reassert Communist party dominance over public discourse, particularly online.

Venture capitalist and Chinese blogging pioneer Isaac Mao warned that requiring users to register with their personal information to use any Internet service would stifle expression and creativity online.

It definitely has a chilling effect,” Mr. Mao said. “In the long run, freedom of speech and freedom of innovation will be dramatically harmed.

Weibo Corp. ’s microblogging service deleted 5,500 accounts, according to the regulator’s statement. They included accounts that spread information related to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group from the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Tencent canceled instant messaging and other social media accounts related to gambling, firearms, fake invoices and fake food-safety information, the regulator said.

Neither company immediately responded to requests for comment.

Some analysts have warned that the new rules could make things challenging for Chinese Internet companies by increasing operational costs while reducing total user numbers.

Yet tighter registration might also improve the quality of their users, said Xiaofeng Wang, a senior analyst at Forrester.

Marketers and consumers have become more mature. They’re getting past the stage where they care only about the total number of users,” she said. “They’ve realized the important thing is the actual, active users.”

Baidu dismissed the idea that the deletions would have an impact on its business. The search giant removed more than 23,000 accounts from its popular PostBar, or Tieba, discussion forums, mostly for promoting “vulgar” culture or featuring erotic avatar images, the agency said.

It’s a vanishingly small percentage of the total number of Baidu PostBar accounts, which number in the hundreds of millions,” said Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo. He declined to comment further on what the company was doing to comply with the new requirements.

The regulator didn’t say whether Alibaba had deleted any accounts, but said the company had set up a special working group to manage usernames on its various platforms. Alibaba declined to comment.

Ms. Wang said further restrictions on speech could hurt the attractiveness of social media platforms, but said that companies were unlikely to resist. “With the Internet, you always have to obey certain rules if you want to operate a business in China,” she said.

What will happen to Uber in China? Car-sharing app faces uncertain landscape and well-funded competitors

 ChinaFile:

Ride-sharing app Uber has expanded around the world at a blistering pace, launching in a new city every one or two days. At first glance, China would appear the ideal fit for the Silicon Valley startup. Most urban residents in the world’s second-largest economy rely on sclerotic local taxi monopolies whose numbers have failed to match the country’s breakneck urbanization: the population of the capital Beijing, for example, has grown by nearly 50 percent to 20 million in the past ten years, while its taxi fleet of 66,000 remains the same size it was in 2003. The potential for a better way to get around town is clearly immense.

But on December 23, Uber suffered a setback when local authorities raided its office in the large southern city of Chongqing, a sign the company may encounter regulatory scrutiny in China similar to what it has encountered in other countries. Uber’s Chongqing travails initially appear to be yet another case in the recent string of large foreign firms finding themselves in the crosshairs of Chinese regulators—often to the benefit of domestic champions. It may come as a surprise, then, that Uber’s local competitors have come in for their share of official scrutiny as well.

Foreign and domestic ride-sharing apps both brush against powerful vested interests here, meaning that app makers, riders, and drivers all need to prepare for a bumpy ride.

China’s ride-on-demand market has been so ripe for the picking that when Uber launched there in February this year, it quickly found itself a small player in a market dominated by existing alternatives. These include “black taxis”—low-tech drivers peddling rides outside of the official taxi system—as well as two domestic taxi-hailing and ride-sharing apps backed by deep-pocketed local Internet firms: Didi Dache (roughly “Honk honk, hail a cab”), which is integrated with social network titan Tencent, and Kuaidi Dache (meaning “Quickly hail a cab”), funded by e-commerce giant Alibaba. (On the same day Uber was raided, the U.S. firm also announced it had secured backing from a third internet giant, search engine firm Baidu, a move that Uber hopes will give it more resources to battle the local players.)

Both Didi and Kuaidi got their start as apps helping riders to hail traditional taxis from the local monopolies, allowing users to entice cab drivers with tips. The apps’ tech giant backers poured money into promotions and bonuses—which included literally paying drivers and riders to use their apps—to drum up supply and demand. The strategy has succeeded; taxi-hailing apps now count 154 million Chinese users. Didi alone boasts100 million users and 900,000 registered taxi drivers spread across 178 cities, with more than 5 million rides booked every day. Even after a decline following the termination of the major promotions, the apps remain in heavy nationwide use, appearing to vindicate the apps’ early, money-burning tactics.

Having conquered the taxi-hailing market, over the summer both Kuaidi and Didi separately rolled out secondary services for riding in private cars that compete more directly with Uber’s bread and butter. These offerings provide tiers of service, with car models going all the way up to high-end Audis. The private car services are still new, but Didi and Kuaidi and their deep-pocketed backers have made clear they aren’t afraid to spend lavishly on early promotions and subsidies to build the market.

It would appear that China’s ride-on-demand market is Didi and Kuaidi’s to lose.

Those apps’ private drivers are less sanguine. One told me that although business is good, “Didi is still new, so who knows if the government might ban it later?” It’s a line that illustrates the difficult relationship that firms on the cutting edge of business innovation often have with Chinese authorities.

Even before Didi and Kuaidi launched their private car services, their taxi-hailing functions already encountered considerable scrutiny and the occasional bans from city governments for most of their two-year lifespans. That has led to different regulatory regimes in different cities. For example, Didi’s ability to attract cabbies with the promise of hefty tips was still functional on this author’s recent trip to the regional capital city of Changsha, while as of late October, that option had apparently been removed in Shanghai, China’s largest city. Rumors swirled that authorities here were trying to protect traditional taxi reservation hotlines, or were attempting to prize the city’s taxis from the grasp of a smartphone-wielding technorati that had grown used to luring drivers with tips, leaving the elderly and other riders who still hail cabs the old-fashioned way coughing in the dust.

But another theory goes that Didi and Kuaidi removed the tipping function themselves, in order to push well-heeled riders to consider their new Uber-like private car services, which still allow tipping. But private car services also have seen their share of sniping from interest groups and regulators, in many cases well before the December raid on Uber’s Chongqing office. By adding private car services to their existing taxi-hailing functions, the apps have gone from helping traditional taxis secure riders and tips to cultivating competing services that step on the toes of local taxi monopolies, which are often state-owned and constitute influential vested interests. Cab drivers in some cities already have complained that private car services are eating into their business, with cabbies in the large city of Nanjing threatening to boycott Didi’s taxi-hailing app if the firm did not remove the private car function. Local governments have also come down on these native apps on grounds similar to those countries like Belgium have cited in restricting Uber: i.e., the cars act like taxis but aren’t licensed like taxis, making them technically illegal. The large industrial city of Shenyang has already banned the private car service, and others like the major seaport of Dalian have questioned its legality too.

I used Didi to ride with several private car drivers, and found them understandably concerned about a potential ban on their new business. A Shanghai native surnamed Wang drove for Didi’s private car service full time, and was thus most vulnerable to any future regulation. Like all drivers I met, Wang was aware of the potential for a government ban on Didi and its competitors, but called it a double standard, noting the government had “allowed fleets of ‘black taxis’ to operate around Shanghai’s train station and other hubs with impunity for years.” Called “black” because they are illegal, black taxis have been a mainstay of Chinese city streets before smartphones even existed, taking advantage of the surplus demand created by limited taxi fleets. They offer rides to the impatient or desperate for unmetered fares that are bargained on the spot—usually to the disadvantage of those unfamiliar with the city.

If the authorities could turn a blind eye to black taxis, asked Mr. Wang, shouldn’t they be lenient towards Didi’s more professional private car service as well? After all, his clean Volkswagen SUV offered standard Didi features like bottled water and a charging port, and his friendly service and metered fares tallied by Didi’s app added up to a far better experience than that offered by the rundown black taxis with their shady drivers. Wang may have answered his own question.

Since the apps are far better organized and provide superior service, they represent a more significant threat to traditional cabs than black taxis ever could, which has inspired a stronger protectionist response.

Not all drivers were bitter about the threat of government action. One cheerful Didi driver, also surnamed Wang (no relation), came from the city of Xi’an and drove for the app as a lucrative sideline to his day job running a boxed-lunch business for office workers. He acknowledged that his part-time work probably infringed on taxi drivers’ territory and was resigned to the possibility that government action would put an end to it, but he was happy for the extra income while it lasted.

Drivers continue to participate in Didi’s private car service despite the uncertainties in part because Didi pays generous subsidies to drivers who receive high customer ratings, a gambit that echoes it and Kuaidi’s earlier promotions for taxis. (In an attempt to curry rider favor, some drivers even go beyond the app makers’ basic requirements like bottled water, providing extra touches such as medicine for carsickness.) Mr. Wang from Shanghai told me he was earning about $1,600 per month, thanks to subsidies and bonuses, more than Shanghai’s average white-collar salary of about $1,180. Wang’s father had been a cab driver and drove crushing hours, sometimes from 7 o’clock a.m. until midnight or later, without weekends; the younger Wang felt his hours were much easier. Bonuses fluctuate daily, but at their best can let drivers pocket double what passengers pay in fares, with Didi making up the difference. Given that Didi and Kuaidi battled for taxi-hailing market shares earlier this year by literally paying drivers and riders to use their apps, this latest subsidy scheme appears to be an effort to flood the streets with private cars at key times, making the service more convenient in the eyes of riders while also undercutting less well-funded competitors.

Uber may in the future find itself ensnared in more regulatory troubles with local Chinese authorities, but it won’t be alone. Didi and Kuaidi’s private car services have already upset the old system, in which traditional cabs dominated and black taxis mopped up excess demand without providing any real competition. Kuaidi has expressed confidence that it has the market knowledge and official relationships to ride out the initial wave of government scrutiny, though only time can tell if that is the case. In the meantime, drivers and riders can enjoy the services’ financial generosity and convenience—while they last.

Futuristic chopsticks can detect spoiled food, and will even count calories for you

baidu-chopstick-

 Audrey Magazine:

Remember the good ol’ days when chopsticks were just used as utensils? Okay fine, we may still be in the “ol’ days” right now, but if the Chinese company Baidu succeeds, we may be kissing the reign of plain chopsticks goodbye.

Last week at an annual tech conference in Beijing, CEO Robin Li revealed that Baidu has been working to incorporate technology into our beloved utensils. To everyone’s amazement, he announced that these chopsticks of the future can detect the nutritional makeup of the food it touches. Apparently, this means the chopsticks can count calories, determine salt content and provide you with all sorts of information that you would want to know about your food before consuming it.

Many seem to be intrigued by the chopsticks’ ability to determine whether food has gone bad. The chopsticks can also be used as a thermometer to ensure that you are frying and cooking at the correct temperature.

So how can a pair of sticks tell us so much? Apparently the high-tech chopsticks will connect with an app that will give you all the information that the chopsticks detect.

By now, many of you are probably itching to get a pair of these. No more food poisoning for you! But unfortunately, these are nicknamed the chopsticks of the future for a reason. Apparently the chopsticks are still at the very early stage of development and all information regarding the price or release date of this product has yet to be announced.

Until then, check out this cool promo video: