Female passengers in China have started changing their profile photos and gender information on ride-sharing giant Didi Chuxing, after the suspected rape and murder of a young flight attendant by a driver at the beginning of May.
Chinese women are hiding their faces after a ride-sharing murder
The changes started soon after several Chinese media outlets reported that one of Didi’s subsidiaries, an Uber Pool-like carpooling service called Hitch, had a function largely visible only to other drivers that allowed them to to rate the attractiveness of passengers.
“I changed my profile picture so that drivers with ulterior motives wouldn't choose to pick me up,” Lydia Lu, a 24-year-old woman living in Xian, told Inkstone. She now uses a photo of a young man with a bloodied face as her profile photo on Didi.
Over the weekend, Didi suspended Hitch’s operations across China, after one of its drivers was suspected of raping and stabbing to death a female flight attendant in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou.
The 21-year-old woman had finished her shift and was picked up by a Hitch driver before being allegedly raped and murdered on May 6.
She was found on May 8. The driver suspected of the crime, by the name of Liu Zhenhua, was found dead about one week later.
The murder of the woman, a recent college graduate from the northern Chinese city of Jinan, has ignited a national debate about sexual assault and the safety of wildly popular car-hailing services like Didi.
There have been at least 14 separate cases in which female passengers were allegedly sexually assaulted by Didi drivers, according to Chinese media outlet Caixin.
Uber has also faced similar problems. In the US, nine women filed a class action lawsuit against the car-hailing app in March. They accused the company of failing to protect female passengers from rape and sexual harassment.
In the Hitch case, Yang Wenzhan, a partner at the Zhong Dun Law Office in Beijing, told Inkstone that he suspected the woman’s driver had chosen her based on information gleaned from her Hitch profile – such as her age, gender and physical appearance.
After her death, Chinese media reported that Hitch, one of 13 services offered by Didi, had a little-known feature that allows drivers and passengers to comment on each other: a tool that drivers have been using to rate the attractiveness of passengers.
Didi had no comment on Hitch's review system.
‘Gentle and charming’
That detail, first reported by Caixin and the Beijing News, was independently confirmed to Inkstone by two different drivers currently working for Hitch.
Unlike other services provided by Didi, Hitch drivers can choose passengers based on factors such as location, route or reviews and descriptions by other drivers. Current Hitch drivers have told Inkstone about the descriptions, which often center around appearance.
“After finishing a Hitch order, a comment page will automatically pop up,” said a part-time driver in the southern city of Guangzhou, who has been driving since 2015. “The page will let you choose tags describing the appearance of passengers, for example ‘goddess,’ or ‘gentle and charming’.”
These tags appear to have been built into the system, along with more straightforward tags such as “on time” or “polite.”
Another driver in Zhangzhou, in the southeastern province of Fujian, started working with Hitch in March. He told Inkstone that some of the tags -- including “sweet and beautiful” and “long legs” – appeared to be set by default. He said drivers could also create their own tags for passengers.
The driver from Guangzhou said reviews mattered: “If the profile picture shows a pretty girl, or many drivers say that she’s a pretty girl, I am willing to pick her up even though it’s inconvenient for me.”
He said he was not using the app actively to pick up women, but that it was an enticement.
Hitch passengers can also rate drivers, and view their own ratings. But many of the passengers were not aware of this function, as the page is not obvious on the app, said the Guangzhou driver.
Didi’s last round of funding valued it at $56 billion, roughly the same as Uber. It has suspended Hitch until May 19 to conduct an internal investigation and to make changes. Its other units are still running.
Zhang Yi, a tech expert in Guangzhou, said there were problems in that the social media aspect of Hitch, intended to boost the number of users, may not be appropriate for a ride-sharing service.
At Hitch's launch in 2015, General Manager Huang Jieli highlighted its social media elements. She said the review tags could help drivers and passengers to make friends.
A previous complaint had been made against the account the suspect used, alleging verbal sexual harassment. Didi customer service said that they had called the driver repeatedly but failed to reach him.
In a statement released on May 11, the company said it would review the identities of drivers, its operational and customer service systems.