BEIJING — Mr Liu Lijing, a mechanic in Beijing, does not usually pay much attention to manners. He does not mind when people blast loud music, and he strolls the alleyways near his home in a top stained with grease. But when a stranger recently ditched a bicycle in the bushes outside his door, Mr Liu was irate.
Start-ups have flooded the city with shared bikes, he complained, and people have been leaving them all over the place without thinking about other residents. “There’s no sense of decency anymore,” he muttered, picking up the discarded bike and heaving it into the air in anger. “We treat each other like enemies.”
There are now more than 16 million shared bicycles on the road in China’s traffic-clogged cities, thanks to a fierce battle for market share among 70-plus companies backed by a total of more than US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) in financing. These start-ups have reshaped the urban landscape, putting bikes equipped with GPS and digital locks on almost every corner in a way Silicon Valley can only dream of.
But their popularity has been accompanied by a wave of misbehaviour. Because the start-ups do not use fixed docking stations, riders abandon bicycles haphazardly along streets and public squares, snarling traffic and cluttering pavements.
Thieves have taken them by the tens of thousands, for personal use or selling them for parts.
Angry and mischievous vandals hang them from trees, bury them in construction sites and throw them into lakes and rivers.
Such problems have raised questions about the sustainability of China’s bike-share boom. But the debacle has also led many Chinese to look for deeper explanations and ask if bike-sharing has revealed essential flaws in the national character, prompting a far-reaching debate about social decay and the decline of decorum and morality in the country.
“We look at ourselves, and we ask, ‘What is wrong with the Chinese nation, the Chinese people?’” said Mr Xu Qinduo, a political commentator for China Radio International. Many people are proud of the country’s economic achievements and growing global clout, he added, but worry that it lacks a strong sense of morals.
Some say abuse of the bicycles reflects an every-man-for-himself mentality in China that has its roots in the extreme poverty of the past century. Others are bothered by what they see as a lack of concern for strangers and public resources. The transgressions have been chronicled in the local news media with a tone of disbelief, in part because Chinese generally see themselves as a law-abiding society, and crime rates are relatively low.
In many cities, the supply of bicycles far exceeds demand, bringing chaos to pavements, bus stops and intersections, and prompting grumbles that excessive competitiveness — seen as a national trait — is spoiling a good thing. In Shanghai, where officials have struggled to maintain order, there is now one shared bike for every 16 people, according to government statistics.
In some places, the authorities have confiscated tens of thousands of bicycles and imposed parking restrictions. News outlets have documented the waste with astounding images of mountains of candy-coloured bicycles, each hue representing a different bike-sharing company.
City officials are also grappling with creative vandalism of the bicycles, which varies in severity from smashing the locking device to setting the entire vehicle on fire. Some of the destruction has been attributed to residents angry about the blight of bikes piling up in their neighbourhoods. But the police in several cities have also cited disgruntled rickshaw and taxi drivers, upset that bike-sharing has sapped their business.
“It’s a battle every day,” Mr Ke Jin, a security guard at a residential compound in north-east Beijing, said as he cleared a path that had been blocked by a tangled heap of blue and yellow bikes. “It’s human nature not to care.”
On social media and in conversation, it is common to hear people describe bike-sharing as a “monster-revealing mirror” that has exposed the true nature of the Chinese people. In that sense, it is the latest chapter in a line of critical introspection that stretches back before the Communist Revolution, when the famed writer Lu Xun assailed Chinese culture as selfish, boastful, servile and cruel.
Much of the discussion of the mess has revolved around the Chinese concept of suzhi, or inner quality, which can encompass a person’s behaviour, education, ethics, intellect and taste. Chinese often invoke “low suzhi” in criticising the bad habits or manners of others, and have bemoaned a deficit of suzhi in Chinese society for generations, sometimes arguing that they cannot be trusted with elections because their suzhi is too low.
Technology executives who work in the sharing economy and depend on good behaviour for profit are now among the more prominent critics.
One start-up, 3V Bike, was forced to shut down in June after nearly all of its 1,000 bikes were stolen from the streets of small cities. In interviews with Chinese news outlets, the company’s founder Wu Shenghua blamed the public’s “poor suzhi” in part for driving the company out of business.
Others have argued that the theft and vandalism of bicycles had been overstated, that some disorder was to be expected with innovation and that misbehaviour would be worse in other countries.
Ms Hu Weiwei, founder and president of Mobike, one of the most popular bike-sharing apps in China, said the benefits of shared bicycles far outweighed any inconvenience, noting the reductions in carbon emissions and improvements in traffic.
Mobike has designed a point system to punish misdeeds like leaving a bike in the middle of a road, and Ms Hu said she expected problems to disappear as companies became better at incentivising virtuous behaviour. “A good system can bring out people’s goodwill and moral values,” she said.
In the United States, Dallas and Seattle have experimented with dockless bike-sharing programmes, but New York City recently issued a cease-and-desist letter to a company planning a demonstration.
Chinese start-ups are part of this global expansion, with one company, Ofo, deploying 1,000 bikes in Seattle late last month, and Mobike making its debut in June in Manchester, Britain, where similar issues of theft and vandalism have emerged.
Professor Yan Yunxiang, an anthropologist who is the director of the UCLA Centre for Chinese Studies, said China’s roots as an agricultural society made people more dependent on a small circle of relatives and friends, and less trusting of strangers. As a result, he said, many people do not see the purpose of public property and are sceptical of communal rules.
“Public properties are seen as having no owner,” he said, “therefore people believe they can take advantage of them.”
But Prof Yan said the overall success of bike-sharing suggested that mutual trust was growing in China.
Some citizens have formed volunteer groups to take up the cause of promoting the common good.
Mr Zhao Qi, 23, an architect, spends much of his free time as a “bike hunter”, roaming the streets of Beijing looking for vandalised bikes and misbehaving riders.
Mr Zhao said he was motivated partly by patriotism. China has been pushing for years to develop technology products that catch on overseas. Many now see promise in bike-sharing, with the domestic news media hailing it as one of China’s four great modern inventions, drawing a comparison with the ancient inventions of gunpowder, paper, printing and the compass.
“This is a symbol of national pride — a gift from China to the world,” said Mr Zhao. “We can’t mess it up.”
Another volunteer, Cheng Xiaofeng, 46, who works for a state-owned investment company, said she had reported more than 4,000 improperly parked bicycles since April.
“I believe that people are kind and that human nature is good,” she said. “But sometimes they fall under bad influences and need to be corrected.”
On a recent evening, Ms Cheng came upon a woman trying to park a bicycle inside a residential compound near the Lama Temple, in Beijing, in violation of rules set by bike-sharing companies. She tried to persuade her to reconsider.
The woman gave a confused look, left the bike and walked away.