“WE INVEST A lot of money here in China,” proclaimed Travis Kalanick, founder and then boss of Uber, at a confab in Tianjin in June 2016. But, he added with foreboding, “we have a competitor who is investing even more.” Two months later the American ride-hailing giant threw in the towel, selling its Chinese operations to its Beijing-based rival, Didi. Uber lost some $2bn over two years in China. Its retreat paved the way for Didi to grow into China’s undisputed ride-hailing champion, which today processes over four-fifths of all domestic orders. The Chinese titan is widely expected to go public in the next few months, eight years after its launch. It could fetch a valuation of $60bn.
That Uber was willing to burn through so much cash, at least for a time, is a testament to the size of the prize. China boasts the world’s biggest ride-hailing market. According to its transport ministry, 21m trips were booked on ride-hailing platforms each day, on average, last October. That is double the figure in pre-pandemic America, when travel was safer. Until it sold its Chinese business, Uber received more orders in China than in any other country, including its home market. The gross transaction value of China’s ride-hailers reached 221bn yuan ($32bn) last year, up by more than half since 2017, reckons Frost and Sullivan, a consultancy.