Two years into the bike-sharing boom, Chinese users are now turning their back on one of the industry’s stars.

Hundreds of people lined up at Ofo’s Beijing headquarters yesterday to ask for their deposits back, Chinese media reported. Users flocked there after one Beijing newspaper reported that people who went straight to Ofo’s offices to apply for a refund got their money back.

For months, users said that they haven’t been able to get their deposit back from Ofo, as the company ran into financial troubles and extended the wait time for refunds from 3 days to 15 days.

Users of “bike-sharing” apps, which in fact are more like bike rental, have to put a deposit in the app before using a bike. In Ofo’s case it’s 199 yuan (US$28.84), while Mobike used to charge 299 yuan (US$43.33) before it was acquired by Meituan and dropped the deposits. 

“It’s not big money, but it makes me mad,” one Weibo user said, “It’s like having your money stolen.”

Lines stretched from Ofo’s office on the fifth floor to outside of the building, according to video reports. Queuing users were reportedly equipped with food and water in case of a long wait, and said in videos that they will come back the next day if they don’t make it inside. But they don’t get their money back on spot either -- Ofo logged their information and promised them that they will receive the refund in three days. 

Ofo then posted a statement on Weibo saying that applying for refund at their office is no different from applying online. On Tuesday, Weibo users are also sharing screenshots of the Ofo app, which shows them the online queue for getting refund -- where many are saying that there are more than 9 million people ahead of them. We have not been able to reach an Ofo spokesperson.

This is the “2018 Ofo Beijing bike club”, Weibo users joke, referring to the big crowd at Ofo’s Beijing headquarters. (Picture: Weibo)

With so many people in line for a deposit, users are seizing on any way to get ahead of that enormous queue. One Weibo user claimed that he sent Ofo an email written in English, in the hope of getting some attention. It allegedly worked -- Ofo not only gave back his deposit the next day, they also wrote back an apology letter. The user posted screenshots of both his email and Ofo’s response on Weibo, but later deleted them and explained that he didn’t want to attract too much attention.

State media blasted Ofo for not being genuine to its users and asked authorities to step in, and people on Weibo were furious. The hashtag “Pretend to be a foreigner and get refund immediately” has been viewed 270 million times on Weibo, where most people are condemning Ofo’s double standards.

Ofo was started in 2014 by Dai Wei, a Peking University graduate. He first created Ofo for college students in Peking University, and later expanded it to other universities and eventually cities across China and overseas.

In its heyday in 2017, it raised three rounds of funding in four months and owned over half of China’s bike rental market share. Chinese media have reported that in 2017, the company had more money than it could spend, and that its two head executives each owned a Tesla. But it soon ran into trouble as it struggled with a management chaos when competitors flooded the market, according to Chinese media reports.

Ofo’s CEO Dai Wei has asked his staff to “fight till the end” and promised that the company will “kneel to survive”, but anything is possible. And apparently it’s still struggling. Recently, Ofo has tried various ways to make money, including putting video ads in its app and selling honey on its official WeChat account.