Future of Sharing: Booming Growth, Bike-Sharing, and Big Brother: the Sharing Economy in China

Orville Schell, veteran reporter and Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, has covered China for decades and recently accompanied President Trump to Asia as a Vanity Fair correspondent. Trump loves to be pandered to, Schell pointed out, and cares more about whether he’s “winning” the leader of a foreign country than advancing the national interests of the United States. Despite the aggressive and often antagonistic remarks that Trump made about China while on the campaign, the Chinese government has treated Trump in a more strategic and less reactionary way. They appreciate the transactional nature of the relationship, Schell suggests, and the fact that Trump doesn’t raise vexing questions about democracy and China’s record on human rights.

Schell has an uniquely nuanced and comprehensive perspective on China, given his many years of reporting about the nation and its history, society, and politics. China’s surge of economic growth, paired with its political crackdown, came as somewhat of a surprise, Schell said. In ways we can’t see, China has core instabilities built into it. Its government has tied its legitimacy to economic growth rates—when these slow or fall, as economic growth rates inevitably do, the government may struggle.

Perhaps paradoxically, despite the Chinese government’s extreme censorship of the Internet and Western media, the sharing economy has flourished. The Chinese sharing economy is projected to maintain an annual growth rate of 40 percent, doubling its share of GDP from 10 percent in 2020 to 20 percent in 2025. From 2015 to 2016, the Chinese sharing economy grew from 500 million users to 600 million. Bike-sharing startups are particularly popular, though some have floundered in the past year. In some ways, according to Schell, the Chinese society is especially well-suited for the sharing economy, given its cultural emphasis on the family over the individuality, and its rapidly growing population. Currently, Schell says, many people in China either don’t have the space to share room in their room, or are so wealthy that they don’t need the extra income. This is likely to change as the Chinese middle class expands, from 12 percent of the Chinese population in 2009 to a projected 73 percent in 2030.

Of significant concern is the amount of surveillance the Chinese government conducts on its citizens, and the extensive amount of data it collects about them. Household Registration Cards track the Chinese and allows them to live in some places but not others. This surveillance also applies, though to a lesser extent, to foreign visitors to China. When travelers stay in a Chinese hotel, their names go to the Public Security Bureau. If travelers stay in a home, they have 24 hours to register with the Bureau. A Social Credit System that the Chinese government aims to launch in 2020 ultimately means that there’s no escaping the Communist Party of China, Schell says. “We’re in an experiment the likes of which we’ve never seen before in human history.”