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China’s buzzing sharing economy may not be real, but the money sure is

As many as 600 million people are involved in China’s sharing economy, with the value of transactions estimated at US$500 billion.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 10:51pm

Inspired by the huge success of companies that make a business out of sharing cars and housing, China is going through a bout of a sharing boom, with increasing number of seemingly shareable products and services, from bicycles to power banks, to baby strollers.

As many as 600 million people were involved in activities related to China’s sharing economy last year, with transactions estimated at US$500 billion, according to the State Information Centre. Economic activity around sharing could account for as much as 10 per cent of China’s gross domestic product by 2020, the centre said.

What the report didn’t specify is its definition of the “sharing economy” in China.

The sharing economy typified by Airbnb or Uber, both of which now have market capitalizations in the billions is becoming China’s latest business fad. However, the concept in China might differ from Airbnb or Uber’s definition.

“Not many of those companies belong truly in the sharing economy,” said Tan Jing , investor and one of the founding members of Uber China. “The sharing economy is a trade-off between private individuals. It’s a way to make the most of the social surplus.”

China’s three dozen bicycle sharing services, with their ride-anywhere and park-anywhere business model, uses the public space as their parking spots, which increases management cost for the government and sometimes even cause inconvenience for the public, so they’re “not the real essence of the sharing economy,” said Tan.

Many pedestrians and local governments might agree. The boom in bike sharing services across the mainland has generated complaints about illegal parking, traffic violations and dumped cycles.

Profiting at the cost of public resources is not the only problem. How many of those “sharing economy” companies are profitable is still a question.

“When we talk about sharing economy, we have to think about what has the lowest use ratio and highest price. Only those who fit the criteria have actual sharing value,” said Pan Shiyi, chairman of SOHO China. “If you start to share cheap things like umbrellas and power banks, the concept of sharing economy is distorted.”

That might partly explain why the pioneer of the business model was usurped by the pretender, as Uber’s China business was bought out by Didi-Chuxing, after burning through billions of dollars in the market. Alibaba Group Holding, owner of the South China Morning Post, owns 6 per cent of Didi. The ride-sharing company is valued at US$50 billion.

“China’s taxi price is relatively low, and Uber didn’t have much competitive advantage in China,” said Tan. “That’s why the real car-sharing companies can only survive in countries like the United States where taxi fares are much higher.”

Many of the trendy sharing companies in China are in fact rental businesses, Tan said. “Didi has more taxi companies on its platform than private car owners. It’s more like an online car-hiring company now,” she said.

So why do startups want to pass themselves off as sharing economy businesses? That’s because venture capital and angel investors love the buzzword.

“Successful business like Didi has a strong demonstration effect,” said Shu Huan, chief executive of venture capital database company VC Smart. “The investor might not be genuinely interested in this ‘sharing economy’ project, but they don’t want to miss out the next Didi.”

By packaging themselves as a sharing economy, some startups are offering themselves to investors as the chance to get in on the next unicorn, as companies with at least US$1 billion in valuation are called.

“When you say you are a rental company, investors compare you with the library, or traditional car hiring firms. But when you say you are a sharing-economy company, they will compare you with Airbnb. That’s called comparable company valuation, and it got many start-ups valued at a much higher price than they worth,” said Tan.

VC Smart data shows 23 per cent of the 329 “sharing economy” startups have been financed, which is much higher than ventures in other fields.

Over the past month, three umbrella sharing startups have raised several million yuan from investors, even as doubts remain as to how their business models work.

However, those startups still have their business value even if they can’t make any profits for now.

“The online market is quite mature now. The cost of getting a new user online is not much cheaper, sometimes is even more expensive, than attracting a new customer offline,” said Shu. “Business like bike-sharing or umbrella-sharing can be a good way to catch new customers offline and direct the new traffic to their online or other profitable businesses.”

Ofo, one of China’s biggest bike-sharing companies, has raised a US$700 million Series E funding round led by Alibaba.

Tencent, which operates China’s largest social media network, led a US$600 million financing round of another bike-sharing startup Mobike. By asking bike hirers to use Alipay or Wechat as payment methods, the much smaller but highly popular bike rental companies have become an efficient channel to attract new customers for those online giants.

“Maybe some companies should call themselves ‘sharing economy,’ but the real opportunities are not in sharing anyway,” said Shu. “Rental business has a lot of more potential to explore in China.”