A press conference today meant to celebrate a small win in Uber’s ongoing campaign for legal recognition in Hong Kong looked instead like yet another setback, as the sole taxi company to cooperate with the ride-hailing giant abruptly backed out of both the event and the partnership at the last minute.
The news comes after more than 30 taxi associations condemned Uber Flash — a service, launched today, that allows users to hail licensed cabs through the Uber app — as well as its planned partnership with Tin Shing Motors Holdings Ltd., a small local operator with about 20 cabs.
The taxi associations, who have fiercely contested Uber’s efforts to operate in the SAR, maintain that Uber is effectively an unlicensed cab service, and that the partnership with a licensed taxi company would indirectly legitimize unlicensed vehicles illegally offering car hire services, a practice known as “pak pai.”
Suspicions that the partnership fell through came about this morning when Edward Lau, owner of Tin Shing Motors, failed to appear at the launch of Uber Flash as planned, leaving Uber’s head of public policy for North Asia, Emilie Potvin, to hold down the fort on her own.
An Uber representative confirmed in an email to Coconuts HK that “Tin Shing is no longer partnering with us to launch Flash in Hong Kong.”
A statement released today by Uber announcing the launch conspicuously avoids mentioning Tin Shing or Lau, instead calling on drivers to sign up for the app.
“We are very excited to launch Flash today and prove to taxi driver-partners that Uber’s technology can significantly enhance their business,” Potvin was quoted as saying in the announcement. “Our goal is to help taxi partners to be more efficient and make cities more accessible to all. We are committed to making a difference to Hong Kong and we welcome all taxi partners to join us and enjoy what our technology has to offer.”
The South China Morning Post reports that Lau issued a statement to other taxi operators confirming his withdrawal from the partnership from Uber, which had seen his company branded a “traitor” to the industry.
“Originally the cooperation was meant to raise taxi drivers’ income and offer quality services to passengers,” he reportedly wrote in the statement. “In the wake of the opposition from the taxi industry, call centers, taxi application owners and an upcoming new taxi application (E Taxi), I decided to try out the new app first and have cancelled the partnership with Uber.”
Uber’s 2014 entry into the Hong Kong market was initially feted by authorities, with InvestHK — a branch of the government committed to attracting foreign investment — extolling in 2015 the “significant support” it offered the Silicon Valley behemoth, “including information on public transportation and advice on market entry strategy.” However, the reception soon soured, with authorities arresting several drivers and searching the company’s offices just a few months later.
InvestHK quietly removed its gushing press release shortly thereafter.
Tens of thousands of Hongkongers signed a petition in support of Uber following the arrests, but since then, things have only gotten worse for the ride-hailing company, particularly as opposition from the local taxi industry intensified.
Just yesterday, according to RTHK, representatives of nearly 40 taxi associations protested outside the Customs Headquarters in North Point demanding the authorities take action against Uber.
They alleged that Uber Flash breaches the Trade Descriptions Ordinance, maintaining that it misleads cabbies into working for it, and passengers into using it. They also condemned Tin Shing Motors for “colluding” with Uber.
Despite independent assessments indicating an outsize number of complaints to official bodies regarding taxi operators, officials appear to have come down on the side of the traditional companies, with the Transport and Housing Bureau submitting a paper to the Legislative Council last month proposing much stiffer fines and license suspensions for the likes of Uber drivers.
At today’s briefing, Uber’s Potvin said she couldn’t disclose the number of drivers who would be participating in Uber Flash, but said that the car-sharing service would continue to negotiate with the industry, according to a Headline Daily report. She also invited taxi drivers to join the platform, and maintained that anyone who did would be in full compliance with the law.