A Chinese tech start-up that links substitute drivers with inebriated car owners has gone one step further by introducing a service for its app users to summon surrogate drinkers.
Beijing-based eDaijia, China's biggest provider of mobile-based designated driving services, introduced the location-based booking feature on Thursday.
Within 24 hours of the launch, more than 100,000 have signed up to become "surrogate drinkers".
Working much like Uber, users of eDaihe – which means "to drink on behalf of" in Mandarin – put in their location and choose their ideal surrogates, based on how far they are away, how much liquor they can drink, or even how witty their introductions are.
One drinker, for example, introduces himself as an "Olympian on the drinking battlefield" and rather adventurously claims he can drink the equivalent of nine shots of 104-proof Chinese baijiu – the fiery grain liquor that is a staple at many social occasions – three bottles of beer and a dozen bottles of wine, in one sitting.
"Most people who drink are social animals, so we thought why don't we launch a surrogate drinking service to help them make friends," said He Dongpeng, a spokesman for eDaijia.
The company has been working to develop the feature for months to catch China's holiday season, which stretches from the year-end to Lunar New Year, which falls in February.
Drinking is an important social skill in China. Whether it is a family get-together or a dinner to seal a business deal, and the consumption of liquor is more often than not a must.
China has seen the rise of the on-demand and gig economy, made possible by the popularity of mobile internet and payment services. From using apps to hail a ride to summoning an in-home massage, such services will create a new labour market by 2036 with 400 million self-employed persons, according to AliResearch, a research affiliate backed by South China Morning Post's owner Alibaba Group.
China's drinking culture has created a 15.4 billion yuan (US$2.4 billion) industry in recent years, with a number of new jobs, such as designated drivers, being created, according to an August report from People's Daily, citing a report published by a research team from Tsinghua University.
In 2016, there were more than 253 million bookings for designated drivers, according to the report. Of that, 97.8 per cent were required because the car owner was unfit to drive.
For eDaijia, the surrogate drinking feature is part of its efforts to tap into business opportunities arising from China's drinking culture. Founded in 2011, the start-up has built up a business of allowing those who are drunk to summon a driver to help drive their cars home. Didi Chuxing, China's answer to Uber Technologies, also launched a designated driver service in 2015.
According to eDaijia, it has more than 200,000 full-time and part-time drivers providing the services in 331 cities in China. In peak season during the New Year, a full-time driver in major cities can easily get five to six bookings a night and make 10,000 yuan (US$1,535) a month.
The surrogate drinking service, by comparison, is now available in 36 cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Because the service is still relatively new to the public, eDaijia has not figured out a business model yet and doesn't provide a price list for the services.
"But users and the service providers can talk online first. If they can negotiate a price that is agreed by both sides, then there is a deal," He said.
Chinese local media reports showed that a start-up named Didi Daihe also provided similar surrogate drinking service in 2015. The service, which is not related to Didi Chuxing, did not show up on a check on iOS and Android app stores in China.
There are no restrictions on age or gender built into the app for people who want to sign up to provide the service. All that is needed to create a profile is to upload a photo and fill in details such as name, gender, location and how much one can drink. There's no verification by the company of the details.
"All of the on-demand services, be it ride-hailing or other services, can have safety concerns because of the regulation loopholes," eDaiji spokesman He said when asked if the drinking service raised some safety concerns. "But we still need to embrace new things in order to innovate."