DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Our MORNING EDITION co-host Steve Inskeep has been reporting from China. And he encountered a business so old it's new.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We stood on a sidewalk in Beijing, which was lined with bicycles for rent. We studied them with a Chinese colleague, Isabelle Li.
So we've got like - gosh - about three or 400 bikes here, perhaps, to choose from.
ISABELLE LI: Right. Yeah, all different brands. We have Mobike, Ofo.
INSKEEP: The bikes are lined up outside an office building. Hundreds of workers rode them here, and they're now available for people like us to ride away.
Just to even get it out of the space is an effort because there are so many bikes here.
This is an old-time image of Beijing. Millions of people rode bikes in the days before auto use spread here. But these bikes represent a new business and a new competition between China and the United States. These are dockless, shared bikes, now found in numerous Chinese cities and in numerous American cities. They are attached to no bike rack and just sit unattended on the sidewalk.
OK. So I'm going to take this phone, aim the camera at this barcode.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
INSKEEP: OK, so the bike is unlocked.
LI: Let's go.
INSKEEP: The gray and orange bikes we've chosen are from a company called Mobike. And on those bikes, we edge into traffic.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
INSKEEP: Do drivers look out for you?
LI: No. All the drivers in Beijing are very grumpy (laughter).
INSKEEP: In a bike lane, we're in a flow of electric scooters and the occasional turning car.
Crossing another broad avenue...
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HONKING)
INSKEEP: I guess this driver...
LI: ...That's what I mean by dangerous. We are following the green light, and a car just...
INSKEEP: I guess he figured the red light was optional.
Different colored bikes in the lane belong to competing bike-share brands. They look battered from overuse even though they, like the companies that built them, are new. They've just been on the streets since 2006.
We visited Mobike, the Beijing firm that claims to have been the first to share bikes like this.
This is a space that was designed as a display space. It's a lobby of a large company, but the company has grown so quickly they've had to take it over for office space. And the room is now clogged with long tables where people sit at laptops working all day.
We met the founder upstairs. She's 35 and dressed in the casual manner of many a tech executive, wrapped in a black fleece with the company logo.
HU WEIWEI: My name is Weiwei. And before I'm journalist, too. And now I'm Mobike's founder.
INSKEEP: Hu Weiwei says she started her working life writing for business publications. She started a journalism company and then tried for something more ambitious.
What made you believe that you should attempt some other company?
HU: Now is a very interesting time. It's like (speaking Chinese).
INSKEEP: She says in Chinese, it's the age of exploration, when business people are like the sailors of centuries past. Mobikes financial backers include a giant Chinese Internet firm, Tencent, which has warm relations with China's authoritarian government. And it's one of the world's largest companies. Mobike is now moving into the United States, having set up bikes in Washington D.C. It does face cutthroat competition from numerous rivals in China and abroad. American entries include a California-based firm called LimeBike, which contends it understands the U.S. market better. And as it expands, Mobike has yet to turn a profit, which helps to explain why employees show up at nine each day and commonly work until midnight, grabbing lunch and dinner from buffets in the office. In fact, it was well after dark when the founder Hu Weiwei met us.
We're going out on the roof. Wow.
She showed a perk of working here, a series of decks connected by stairs built out over a river in Beijing.
HU: Many people swim the river.
INSKEEP: Swim in this river?
INSKEEP: Is it clean enough for that?
HU: I don't think so.
INSKEEP: Dark as it was outside, we could hardly see the stairs as we walked them. We had a snapshot of China's economy in 2017 - innovation and ruthless competition, rough edges, danger and pollution, enough money to finance global ambitions and no certainty of success. At the center of that snapshot was the founder of Mobike. She said goodbye to us at 8:30 in the evening and slipped back upstairs to return to work.
GREENE: That was our co-host Steve Inskeep reporting from Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "SOME TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.