Just days after Didi Global Inc., China’s version of Uber, pulled off a $4.4 billion initial public offering in New York, the Chinese cyberspace regulator effectively ordered it removed from app stores in its home market, citing security risks. The ruling doesn’t stop the company from operating -– its half-billion or so existing users will still be able to order rides for now. But it adds to the uncertainty surrounding all Chinese internet companies as regulators increasingly assert control over Big Tech.
1. What’s Didi?
It’s China’s biggest ride-hailing company. Didi squeezed Uber out of China five years ago, buying out the American company’s operations after an expensive price war. Its blockbuster IPO on June 30 was the second-biggest in the U.S. by a company based in China, after Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, giving Didi a market value of about $68 billion.
Accounting for stock options and restricted stock units, the company’s diluted value exceeds $71 billion — well below estimates of up to $100 billion as recently as a few months ago. The relatively modest showing reflects both investors’ increasing caution over pricey growth stocks, and China’s recent crackdown on its biggest tech players.
2. What is this investigation about?
The specifics are still very unclear. Two days after the IPO, the Cyberspace Administration of China said it’s starting a cybersecurity review of the company to prevent data security risks, safeguard national security and protect the public interest. Two days after that it said Didi had committed serious violations in the collection and usage of personal information and ordered the app pulled. There are no details on what precisely the investigation centers on, when or where the alleged violations occurred or whether there will be more penalties to come.
3. Are there any hints?
The Global Times, a Communist Party-backed newspaper, wrote in an editorial that Didi undoubtedly has the most detailed travel information on individuals among large internet firms and appears to have the ability to conduct “big data analysis” of individual behaviors and habits. To protect personal data as well as national security, China must be even stricter in its oversight of Didi’s data security, given that it’s listed in the U.S. and its two largest shareholders are foreign companies, it added.
4. Is it just Didi?
5. Was this out of the blue?
No. In May, China’s antitrust regulator ordered Didi and nine other leaders in on-demand transport to overhaul practices from arbitrary price hikes to unfair treatment of drivers. More broadly, Beijing is in the process of a sweeping crackdown on the nation’s Big Tech firms designed to curb their growing influence.
In November 2020 the authorities derailed the planned IPO of fintech giant Ant Group Co. and in April hit Alibaba with a record $2.8 billion fine after an antitrust probe found it had abused its market dominance. Didi, however, said on Monday it was unaware of China’s decision to halt registrations and remove the app from app stores before its listing.
6. Why does Didi matter?
You can’t really overstate just how dominant Didi is in ride hailing in China, accounting for 88% of total trips in the fourth quarter of 2020. When Didi bought Uber’s Chinese operations in 2016, Uber took a stake in the company that currently stands at 12%. Didi’s U.S. IPO was shepherded by a who’s who of Wall Street banks. Its largest shareholder is Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp. with more than 20%, and others include Chinese social networking colossus Tencent Holdings Ltd. However, due to Didi’s ownership structure, Chief Executive Officer Cheng Wei and President Jean Liu control more than 50% of the voting power.
7. How’s the company doing?
While Didi had a net loss of $1.6 billion on revenue of $21.6 billion last year, according to its filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, its diversity cushioned it against the worst of the pandemic downturn. The company reported net income of $837 million in the first quarter of 2021. With growth in its core market beginning to slow, it has expanded rapidly into fields from car repairs to grocery delivery and has pumped hundreds of millions into researching autonomous driving technology. It’s also said to be planning to expand services into Western Europe.
8. What happens now?
On Didi specifically the critical question is what the review regarding user data finds. But analysts are already looking at the likely wider impact. Key issues are whether the action is likely to discourage other Chinese tech firms from embarking on an overseas listing, and whether the action marks a new direction for the regulatory crackdown. Didi itself said in a statement in would fully cooperate with the review. It warned though that the removal of the app for new users may have an adverse affect on revenue.
Based on the laws cited by the regulators, Didi is probably being investigated over its purchase of certain products and services from other suppliers, which may threaten national data security, according to analysts from Shenzhen-based Ping An Securities. “Didi will inevitably have to check its core network equipment, high-performance computers and servers, large-capacity storage equipment, large databases and application software, network security equipment, and cloud computing services, sort them out and make necessary rectifications to meet regulatory requirements,” the analysts wrote in a note on Monday.
Yang Sirui, chief analyst for the computer industry at Bank of China International, said that Didi went for its public listing in the US hastily, probably due to investor pressure. “Listing Didi as soon as possible meets the demands of the capital,” he said. “But if [Didi] had arbitrarily collected user privacy data, abused it, or monetized it illicitly, it will inevitably be punished by Chinese regulators.” Since its founding in 2012, Didi has undergone a number of private fundraising rounds, raising tens of billions of dollars from venture capital or major tech firms. According to its IPO prospectus, SoftBank Vision Fund is currently the largest shareholder of Didi, with a 21.5% stake. Uber () and Tencent ( ) followed with a 12.8% and 6.8% stake respectively.
The Reference Shelf
- QuickTakes on China’s crackdown on tech giants, and why it changed the rules on Ant.
- Bloomberg Opinion’s Shuli Ren explains how Didi’s foreign investors are on the hook.
- Businessweek examines how China crushed Jack Ma and who’s next.
- A preview of the clouds that marred Didi’s IPO ambition.
- The company’s IPO prospectus.
— With assistance by Coco Liu, Molly Schuetz, Abhishek Vishnoi, and Colum Murphy
By: Emily Cadman
Didi is a Chinese vehicle for hire company headquartered in Beijing with over 550 million users and tens of millions of drivers. The company provides app-based transportation services, including taxi hailing, private car hailing, social ride-sharing, and bike sharing; on-demand delivery services; and automobile services, including sales, leasing, financing, maintenance, fleet operation, electric vehicle charging, and co-development of vehicles with automakers.
In March 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that SoftBank Group Corporation approached DiDi with an offer to invest $6 billion in the company to fund the ride-hailing firm’s expansion in self-driving car technologies, with a significant portion of the money to come from SoftBank’s then-planned $100 billion Vision Fund.
DiDi claims that it provides over tens of millions of flexible job opportunities for people, including a considerable number of women, laid-off workers and veteran soldiers. Based on a survey released by DiDi in March 2019, women rideshare drivers in Brazil, China and Mexico account for 16.7%, 7.4% and 5.6% of total rideshare drivers on its platforms, respectively. DiDi supports more than 4,000 innovative SMEs, which provides more than 20,000 jobs additionally.
40% of DiDi’s employees are women. In 2017, DiDi launched a female career development plan and established the “DiDi Women’s Network”. It is reportedly the first female-oriented career development plan in a major Chinese Internet company.
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