The ride-hailing service is a bit like prostitution in Hong Kong – it is neither legal nor illegal. And that is how the government likes it
Critics have long rounded on the government for protecting the taxi cartel and refusing to allow competition. Uber is tremendously good at turning loyal riders into a political support base to exert pressure on regulators worldwide, not just in Hong Kong. But while its local fans vent their anger, they may consider why they can still order, as quickly as ever, an Uber ride at their fingertip.
In reality, Uber is a bit like prostitution in Hong Kong – it’s neither legal nor illegal. And that’s how the government likes it.
When Uber first reached Hong Kong, the government actually bought into the sharing-economy hype; InvestHK at one point showcased the San Francisco-based transport company in promoting the city’s economy.
It’s true the city’s taxi lobby is powerful. But transport officials were not initially against introducing a bit of competition. Even after they face increasing pressure from the taxi trade and their supporters in the legislature, they continue to tolerate the company.
The police, though, carry out periodic crackdowns. It’s a bit like going after the drug mules while tolerating the drug lords.
Last July, 28 Uber drivers were convicted and fined. Subsequently, five other drivers were fined HK$10,000 (US$1,275) each and banned from the road for a year.
Now, the government has proposed increasing the maximum fine for illegal hires from HK$5,000 to HK$10,000 on first conviction, and HK$10,000 to HK$25,000 on subsequent convictions. Licence suspensions and vehicle seizures will get longer.
But this won’t placate the taxi lobby, because corporate Uber will still be tolerated. As always, it’s Uber drivers who will pay the price.
But also spare a thought for some 40,000 taxi drivers, however rude and aggressive some of them may be. According to a Legislative Council study, daily taxi journeys as a percentage of public transport have dropped from 9.5 per cent in 2007 to 7.1 per cent in 2017. The average age of a taxi driver in Hong Kong is 58.
Most earn less than HK$17,500 a month and have the highest accident rates of all vehicles.
If the government liberalises the taxi market, the livelihoods of both taxi and ride-hailing drivers are certain to take a bad hit. For the government, it may be better just to turn a blind eye.