First it was Alibaba in nationalist crosshairs. Now it's DiDi, which stands accused online of being a "sellout," a "Han traitor" and a "capitalist running dog." What happened?
The car-hailing giant with a 90% market share in China is under regulatory scrutiny in its home country shortly after its $4.4 billion U.S. IPO. China's Cyberspace Administration announced July 2 that it was reviewing the company's data infrastructure. On July 4, the administration ordered DiDi be removed from app stores due to "serious violations of laws and regulations in collecting and using personal data," further fueling public fury. Since then, instead of pining for DiDi's return, web users have traded unsubstantiated speculations about the company transferring troves of sensitive user, geographic and traffic data to the U.S.
There's no evidence that DiDi has handed its data to U.S. authorities, and Chinese laws ban companies from offering data stored within the country to foreign justice or law enforcement agencies without government approval. But that's not stopping the uproar.
On social media platforms like Weibo and Zhihu, web users have widely circulated a 2015 big data analysis that used aggregated data from DiDi to illustrate the amount and patterns of overtime that staff at central government agencies clocked, citing it as evidence to back their claims of DiDi leaking sensitive data — even though the aggregation was originally published by state news agency Xinhua.
The fact that DiDi's two major shareholders, SoftBank and Uber, which collectively owned 34.3% of the company pre-IPO, are non-Chinese companies, in the eyes of nationalists, is another sign of the company's disloyalty to China.
After digging through DiDi's prospectus, nationalistic web users also discovered that one of DiDi's board of directors, Adrian Perica, an Apple vice president, is a U.S. Army veteran. "How much sensitive data has this American army officer obtained from DiDi in the past five years?" DiDi critics asked out loud.
"As a vehicle for hire company, [DiDi] can be completely replaced or shut down from the national security perspective," a distressed tech blogger with nearly 3 million followers wrote on Weibo. "If it crosses the red line, not only the country will not tolerate it, I am afraid the people will not, either."
DiDi is under a cybersecurity review aimed at assessing the national security implications of the procurement and installation of "network products and services" by operators who are deemed to be "critical information infrastructure operators," of which DiDi is one. "Network products and services" can be equipment that includes computers, servers, databases and cloud computing. According to The Wall Street Journal, Chinese officials are concerned that if the equipment for DiDi's servers were procured overseas, it could expose DiDi's data to security risks.
Not only DiDi has faced fervent nationalist condemnation: Its president, Jean Liu, and her father, Liu Chuanzhi (founder of the computer maker Lenovo), have been drubbed on the Chinese web. "It's really a family with treasonous genes," one Weibo user wrote.
Facing mounting criticism, on July 3, DiDi Vice President Li Min took to Weibo to refute that "DiDi's domestic data is stored on domestic servers, and there is no way that the data will be handed over to the United States." In a separate post, Li added: "That includes traffic data. Please stop malicious speculation."
But Li's clarification barely made a dent. The most popular comments under his posts suggest commentators believed DiDi has violated Chinese laws and applauded authorities' decisions to protect national security and personal information. As an editorial by the nationalist, state-backed Global Times put it, the removal of DiDi's app "boosts public confidence." DiDi did not respond to a request for immediate comment on the social media firestorm.
Not only are nationalistic web users not content with DiDi's response, but DiDi users are actively deleting the app, posting screenshots to show their boycott resolution. A post that suggested car-hailing app alternatives on Weibo has been reposted over 20,000 times.
"I am Chinese, and I am proud, but some people like DiDi Chuxing would sell out the country for money, Chinese traitors are coming," a Weibo user wrote, adding that DiDi president Liu and CEO Cheng Wei "would rather be American dogs than Chinese!"
"I hereby ask everyone to delete your DiDi Chuxing account... so they can't earn a penny in China."
Bursts of nationalistic fervor have swept across China in the past few years as geopolitical tensions between Beijing and a host of foreign countries, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan, have escalated. Just this year, grassroots nationalists launched hate campaigns against feminist activists, popular science bloggers and queer communities, cobbling up what they consider evidence of the individual's or groups' foreign associations in order to expose their disloyalty to China or what they assert as anti-China sentiment.Following the collapse of Ant Financial's IPO last November, China has entered a new chapter in what looks like a square-off between the country's increasingly nationalistic citizens and its increasingly beleaguered tech giants. Alibaba founder Jack Ma's treatment online is another example of this dynamic. He was once feted as "Daddy Ma" online, and Alibaba spinoff Ant Group was poised for a massive November 2020 public offering. Now regulators have put that IPO on ice, and Ma is condemned online as "an evil capitalist."