The sharing economy is taking off in China, where you can rent anything from basketballs to apartments, umbrellas to songs.
But it has taken a mercantile twist in the officially Communist country, with venture capital rather than citizens taking the spoils.
While the biggest proponents of the global shared economy, such as Airbnb and Uber, enable people to earn extra cash by renting out their apartments, cars or time, the income from virtually all China’s many rented goods accrues to the owners of capital.
“In foreign countries it’s more like individuals’ sharing economy,” said Erik Zhang, business manager at 3W Coffee, a Shenzhen-based incubator. “But in China it’s more the companies.”
“在别的国家，共享经济更像是个人的，”总部位于深圳的创业孵化机构3W咖啡(3W Coffee)业务经理Erik Zhang表示，“但在中国，它更像是公司的。”
The big prize for these companies is not a slice of transaction revenues but data. Goods rented out many times provide troves of statistics on usage habits. Data can also be used for credit scoring systems: fail repeatedly to return an umbrella, and your credit score will go down.
That has made sharing a much-replicated business model. Bicycles, phone chargers, umbrellas and even basketballs can all be rented by the hour. Even purveyors of music have got in on the act: telephone box-style karaoke booths outside malls and supermarkets in some of the biggest cities allow crooners to dart in for a swift lunchtime song or two, and even record it.
Jiedian, a spin-off from electronics accessory maker Anker, plans to place more than 1m of its AnkerBox phone-charging units in Chinese bars and cafés this year. Proprietors simply pay the electricity; users pay when they charge for more than 30 or 60 minutes, depending on location.
The small charges attached to many services point to the ability to corral big data.
“It’s not just the bikes; what is also valuable is the data,” said Sitao Xu, China economist and partner at Deloitte China, the consultancy. “That’s why venture capital and investors are willing to invest [in the multitude of bike-sharing apps that have sprung up in China in the last year].”
Multinational exemplars of the sharing economy that are operating in China have seen their models customised by users. Rather than rent out their own apartments while they are on holiday, many Chinese have morphed into small-time landlords, investing in a second apartment to rent out by the day — a tactic also popular in Japan.
“The sharing economy is really based on the character of the region where you want to start your business,” said Mr Zhang. “Here it’s more for cultural reasons: in China people don’t like to share stuff with other people unless we don’t need it [any more].”
Even Didi Chuxing, the ride-hailing app that bested Uber in China and subsequently bought its China operations, has opened up opportunities for tangential businesses alongside drivers.
Didi has a number of partnerships with car rental businesses that rent out cars to drivers, while an industry in renting out number plates — an expensive part of keeping cars on the road — has also sprung up. One such agency is renting plates out at Rmb10,000 ($1,500) a year and says a fifth of its business comes from Didi drivers.
“For something like bike-sharing in China, it’s not really sharing,” said William Chau, who leads Deloitte’s telecoms, media and technology practice in China. “It’s owned by a tech company. It’s a leasing model?.?.?.?and data capturing is one of their key agendas.”