Police raided the Hong Kong office of online car-hire giant Uber and arrested five drivers on August 10. It was part of a crackdown on unlicensed car services.
The operation, codenamed Cellbreaker, comes amid increased pressure from the powerful taxi lobby, which has criticised the government for failing to ban private car-hailing apps. This is the latest in a series of conflicts internationally between fast-growing Uber and taxi drivers and cab owners fearful they will lose their business.
Undercover officers posed as customers and hired cars via the Uber app in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kwun Tong and Sha Tin. The drivers, aged between 28 and 65, were arrested at their destination in Kowloon City.
The five were detained for allegedly using a car for hire without a permit and driving without suitable insurance. Five vehicles, including three seven-seater cars, were impounded.
"We are confident that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute the drivers," said Chief Inspector Bruce Hung Hin-kau.
Officers later raided the Uber office and took three staff away for inquiries, a police source said. Hung said the investigation was continuing and appealed to the public not to use such services.
Uber passengers aim for the stars
On August 21, I took an Uber car from the SCMP Tai Po office to Tai Po Market MTR Station, joined by junior reporters Jade, Jessie and Cat.
Signing up for an Uber account is very easy and straightforward. You only need to fill in your basic information and a credit card number. The only way you can pay is by credit card, at the end of your ride. You receive a receipt via email.
Another great feature is that you can actually split the fee with your friends using the Uber app and you will all be charged equally.
You can only book an Uber car the moment or at most a few minutes before you need it, because you can only request one that's nearby. First, you choose from UberBLACK, UberVAN or UberTAXI. Then, the app will show you if there are any available Uber cars nearby.
At 6pm, there was one UberBLACK available so we set the "pick-up location". We received a confirmation message with the driver's name (Kenneth), and his photo, as well as the car's number plate.
As soon as the booking was confirmed, I got a call from Kenneth. "Hello, did you book an Uber car?" he asked. "I'll be there in 5 to 10 minutes."
While waiting, we could track exactly where his car was.
The car was a silvery white Lexus RX. When we got inside, Kenneth asked whether we still wanted to go to Tai Po Market MTR Station.
After I had fastened my seatbelt, I bombarded him with questions. "Are you a full-time driver?" I asked. "No, I have just finished work in Sheung Shui."
Curious, I continued. "What made you decide to be an Uber driver?" This took a bit longer to explain. "It's good to have the extra cash sometimes to pay for petrol. For example, if I am driving a friend to the airport, I would have to drive an empty car back. However, if I take a passenger with me, I make money to cover the cost of the petrol."
Uber not only lets you rate the driver, the driver can also rate you. At the end of our journey, Kenneth said: "I will give you five stars, please give me five stars as well." I happily did so.
It was a very enjoyable trip, although a little expensive. An UberBLACK ride from the SCMP office to Tai Po Market MTR Station cost HK$54 - a normal taxi ride would have cost around HK$24.
I asked my fellow passengers what they thought about the trip, Cat said: "Our Uber vehicle was a lot nicer than most of the taxis I've ever ridden in. Unlike most taxis, this ride was clean, spacious, and mechanically flawless - no engine noise, and it practically purred to a stop. The driver was also chatty and polite, but not so much that it was creepy."
Junior reporter Ruby Leung
Taxis can't compete
In July, approximately 100 taxi drivers took part in a "go-slow" protest by driving slowly to Hong Kong government headquarters to demand answers from the government for its failure to curb car-hailing apps like Uber.
Taxi drivers complained that private car-hailing apps were having a destructive impact on the taxi industry as their monthly income had been cut by a quarter since Uber came to Hong Kong.
The licences and insurance for taxis are expensive, and the private car-hailing apps make it even harder for taxi drivers to make money.
Taxi drivers asked the government to ban car-hailing apps as they argued private car drivers didn't have proper licences or insurance, posing a threat to public safety. They also added it was unfair competition for taxi drivers.
Taxis are also at a disadvantage when it comes to technology. Cashless payment options and service rating systems are standard features of Uber, whereas taxis only accept cash. Customers don't have the option of online booking, credit card payment or customer feedback systems with taxis.
Taxi drivers can only use the meter to charge passengers, said To Sun-tong, a spokesman for the Motor Transport Workers General Union. To admitted it was hard to compete when Uber customers could negotiate a price with their drivers. "Compared to private cars, we are at a disadvantage because we have to charge passengers according to the meters."
Blame bad taxi service
While the taxi protests put pressure on the government, the public was outraged by the arrest of Uber drivers. Many people say taxis aren't providing a good service, causing them to turn to Uber.
It's not unusual to hear cases of taxi drivers refusing to take passengers, using longer routes, or overcharging them.
Figures from the Transport Complaints Unit show the number of complaints about taxi services has increased significantly. Complaints against taxi drivers climbed to 10,600 in 2014 from 596 in 2003, with 2,498 cases for refusing hires, 1,577 for overcharging, and 1,731 for not using direct routes.
"We even complain about the taxi drivers ourselves," said Eddie Wong Chung-keung, the former chairman of the Hong Kong Taxi and Public Light Bus Association. "The main problem is that the quality of taxi drivers has been declining over the past few years."
Frustrated customers may turn to private car services for a more reliable journey. There is the added appeal that a lot of Uber cars are Mercedes, or other luxury cars.
But for busy Hongkongers, perhaps the most appealing factor is the way Uber has embraced technology, and the instant customer feedback system. Not only can customers use the mobile app for online booking and payment, they can also rate Uber drivers. There is even a follow-up complaint system to guarantee service quality.
Knowing that they can be rated at the end of every journey, customer service is much more important to Uber drivers.
A global problem
The battle between the traditional taxi industry and new car-hailing apps isn't taking place only in Hong Kong. Uber has been facing legal challenges all over the world as taxi drivers worldwide claim their business has been affected.
Companies like Uber and Didi Kuaidi have become very popular on the mainland despite a ban on the operation of unlicensed car-hailing services.
Protests against car-hailing apps turned violent when taxi drivers went on strike in cities across the mainland in January. In response to their demands, police in Chengdu and Guangzhou raided the local Uber offices in April. In June, there was a huge fight between police officers and unlicensed drivers in Guangzhou when a private car driver was arrested.
There were also violent riots in France in June when taxi drivers accused UberPOP of charging lower fares and threatening their business.
But despite efforts to curb the operation of unlicensed drivers, there is little sign that car-hailing apps will be banned in Hong Kong any time soon.
HK$7 million - The approximate price of a Hong Kong taxi licence, according to the SCMP.
"They don't have the proper licence to operate … If the government doesn't take action, we will keep on protesting."
Desmond Wong, a 31-year-old taxi driver
"Taxi driver misconduct has spread into many areas, which is why there is public demand for support for online car-hire services like Uber."
Michael Tien Puk-sun, chairman of the Legislative Council's transport panel
"Commuters can't get taxis now because taxis refuse to take them or there are other problems. Mobile apps are only providing a service that taxis are failing to offer."
The developer of car-hailing app Call4van, Wu Kai-chiu
Meaning: A permit from an authority to use, own or do something
Use it: Do you have a driving licence? If not, you can't drive.
Meaning: Issue a permit (usually by an authority) to do something
Use it: Street hawkers have to be licensed by the government to sell food.
Meaning: Without a legal permit
Use it: Unlicensed medicines can have serious side-effects, so it's best to avoid them.