○ Millions of shared bicycles have flooded Chinese cities and revived low-carbon commuting, but chaotic parking has become a headache for the bike companies and city governments
○ An elitist group of "hunters" have dedicated themselves to reporting illegally parked shared bicycles in an effort to deter wrongdoers
○ City authorities' poor management of these bikes is also a target for the bicycle hunters
People ride shared bicycles in Beijing. Photos: CFP
Jumping onto the seat of a shared bike, black-clad Zhuang Ji, 42, was excited on the surface but angry underneath.
He prepared four torches and one charger for his evening of "hunting" in Shanghai. But his prey is not animals, but illegally parked shared bikes.
Prowling the city with only streetlights for company, Zhuang says he feels like a "lonely wolf" that is punishing violators and bringing order back to China's largest city.
Zhuang came across his first find of the night in a residential community. As bike-sharing companies say bicycles should not be left in these areas, Zhuang took a photo of the offending bike and reported it on the relevant app.
On bike-sharing company Mobike's app, reporters get one credit if their report is verified. Mobike users have 100 credits when they sign up, and users who park a bike in the wrong place can lose 20 credits each time. When users' credit drops below 80, their fare goes from 1 yuan ($0.15) to 100 yuan for a ride of less than 30 minutes.
Hunters need to shoot a photo to make a report, and this image must meet certain standards.
A photo must show the area in which the bike is wrongfully parked and the bike's serial number if it is going to be rewarded with credits.
Zhuang says he enjoys this game and has accumulated more than 2,500 credits since last May.
"I think it's useless to prohibit riders from illegal parking by preaching morals. Hunters' existence is necessary, as we can deter and scare them as we're everywhere," he told the Global Times.
Zhuang isn't really a lone wolf though, he is the leader of a pack. He manages a shared bicycle hunters' group, with over 3,000 members living all over China, mostly white collar workers.
Shared bikes have been a huge phenomenon since 2016, and prompted many urbanites to use pedal power to get around once again.
Beijing has over 300,000 such bikes, according to news portal chinanews.com. Jiefang Daily reported that Shanghai has over 280,000 shared bikes.
These bikes have been praised for their convenience and for helping people get around cheaply and cleanly. But the indifference with which many users' treat parking rules has brought major headaches to the authorities and the firms.
"We want to awaken people's lost spirit of contract," Zhuang said.
A shared bicycle hangs in a tree in Qingdao, Shandong Province. Photo: CFP
Zhuang works as an assistant curator at a Shanghai-based contemporary art museum. In order to help visitors with the 1.5-kilometer journey between the museum and the nearest subway station, he asked bike-sharing companies to put their bikes near the museum.
To his astonishment, the bikes disappeared two days after they arrived."I used GPS to find the bikes. They were all parked in a residential compound. I was indignant. I took photos of the bikes and reported them one by one and rode them back," he said.
Since then, he has identified himself as a "hunter." He soon found other indignant people and they joined hands to solve this problem themselves. "People can get addicted to hunting," he said approvingly.
Jiang Yuxiang, 35, a bicycle hunter in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province, has more credits than any other hunter in the group. He has racked up more than 4,700 credits on Mobike since last October.
Jiang runs shop on e-commerce platform taobao.com, but he said he still manages to devote at least one hour a day to hunting down illegally parking bicycles.
"The hunting atmosphere in Guangdong is quite hot. Maybe this is because we have long been influenced by police and gangster movies made in Hong Kong," he said. Shenzhen neighbors Hong Kong.
Jiang said a major difficulty facing hunters is the risk of "being chased by dogs." One time, when he was taking a photo, the last rider found him and then set his dog on Jiang.
"I immediately ran. The dog chased me to the end of the alley and then stopped," he recalled.
Mobike has praised the efforts of hunters and tries to work closely with them. So far Ofo only relies on its own staff members to deal with illegal parking, according to media reports.
A vandalized shared bike. Photo: CFP
A vandalized shared bike. Photo: CFP
Three Body bible
It's easy to report illegal parking on these firms' apps. But it's difficult to become a full member of the hunters' group.
Applicants to this self-consciously elitist group first need to read The Three Body Problem, a series of sci-fi novels written by Chinese writer Liu Cixin. The books tell the story of a Chinese military project looking for alien civilizations during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and describe the turmoil that follows the discovery of an alien race.
Zhuang says the books are the "bible" for hunters. He says that the "dark forest theorem" conveyed in the series applies to his crew. "You need to hide yourself completely and do a good job in cleaning up," he said.
He also warns hunters that they shouldn't have too many expectations about others' humanity and says that it's easier to awe people than improve them.
Those who want to apply to the hunter group need to decipher scraps of information handed out from the hunters' WeChat public account to figure out how to apply. After that, their background will be checked and they will be assigned simple tasks to complete.
"This tests their ability to find our group. If they fail to do this, they don't have the ability to be a hunter," he said.
The "interns" are required to report seven different kinds of illegal parking, such as bikes left in basements or residential communities.
Those who finish these tasks and think they are qualified can then apply to become an official bike hunter.
But Zhuang says he denies the applications of those who immediately ask him for official hunter status after finishing the tasks. "They don't think for themselves much," he explained, adding that he wants people who can bring constructive ideas in addition to completing the required tasks.
One of his own constructive ideas is that the firms should allow "reform through labor," with violators being able to redeem themselves by reporting others.
Of the 3,000 members of the group, less than 100 are official hunters with their own "registration number." The registered hunters are then part of Mobike's "white name list," which makes it easier for them to make reports. They don't get paid by the company.
Zhuang said all the people in his group share his views. But others disagree. One user of Mobike and Ofo told the Global Times that she thinks people like Zhuang just get a kick out of "being a law enforcer."
"It's not a complicated thing. Every user can report illegal parking on their app. There is no need to make it 'exclusive,'" she said.
Hard to manage
Despite the hard work of hunters like Zhuang and Jiang, their number pales in comparison to the size of the problem.
During the recent Qingming Festival holiday, about 10,000 shared bikes were parked around Shenzhen Bay Park in Shenzhen. They not only filled up the bicycle parking area but also colonized two thirds of the waterfront promenade.
The local authorities spent a whole night removing the bicycles and announced that shared bicycles are now not allowed to be taken into the park.
This isn't an unusual scene. The managers of the East Lake scenic spot in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province made an online post months ago saying that Mobikes "disturb the spot's management."
Rather than using such passive-aggressive methods to deal with overcrowding, some have instead chosen more direct techniques.
Zhuang said he received videos from hunters around the country showing security guards throwing away bikes parked within designated bike parking areas, or loading them onto trucks and driving them away.
He then did his own investigation. After finding out that many shared bikes are impounded by the local authorities, he sent the footage of confiscated bikes to the media. Later these bikes were released, an accomplishment of which Zhuang is proud.
Zhuang said that grass-roots law enforcement's negative view of shared bikes is "shortsighted."
"The top leaders see the big picture. But those grass-roots law enforcers don't," he said.
China produces 85 million new bikes every year. Compared with this figure, the shared bikes shouldn't make much of a difference and they should have the capability to manage them. "The most important thing is the rule of law," he said.
In a widely shared article titled "Shared bicycles are a monster-revealing mirror for Chinese people," the author listed how riders sabotage or illegally park the bikes. The article was viewed millions of times.
Following this, a commentary article by the Beijing Youth Daily said that police should inflict more severe punishments on rule-breaking riders.
A Beijing man surnamed Li, a master's degree holder, was detained for 14 days for taking an Ofo shared bike home and modifying it for personal use, media reported in February.
Now city authorities around China are discussing management with bike-sharing companies to come up with solutions like setting up electronic fences to address parking problems.
Zhuang hopes that the hunters can also be included in these discussions to contribute user's suggestions.
He stressed to the Global Times that the hunter's group will never be disbanded from above. "We're like a think tank. Our members are diverse and we also talk about the management and technical aspects of shared bikes. We walk in front of the companies," he said.