“We look at ourselves, and we ask, ‘What is wrong with the Chinese nation, the Chinese people?’” said Xu Qinduo, a political commentator for China Radio International in Beijing. Many people are proud of the country’s economic achievements and growing global clout, he added, but worry that it still lacks a strong sense of morals.
Some say abuse of the bicycles reflects an every-man-for-himself mentality in China that has its roots in the extreme poverty of the last century. Others are bothered by what they see as a lack of concern for strangers and public resources. The transgressions have been chronicled in the local news media with a tone of disbelief, in part because Chinese generally see themselves as a law-abiding society and crime rates are relatively low.
In many cities, the supply of bicycles far exceeds demand, bringing chaos to sidewalks, bus stops and intersections and prompting grumbles that excessive competitiveness — seen as a national trait — is spoiling a good thing. In Shanghai, where officials have struggled to maintain order, there is now one shared bike for every 16 people, according to government statistics.
In some places, the authorities have confiscated tens of thousands of bicycles and imposed parking restrictions. News outlets have documented the waste with astounding images of mountains of candy-colored bicycles, each hue representing a different bike-share company.
City officials are also grappling with creative vandalism of the bicycles, which varies in severity from smashing the locking device to setting the entire vehicle on fire. Some of the destruction has been attributed to residents angry about the blight of bikes piling up in their neighborhoods. But the police in several cities have also cited disgruntled rickshaw and taxi drivers upset that bike-sharing has sapped their business.
“It’s a battle every day,” said Ke Jin, a security guard at a residential compound in northeast Beijing, as he cleared a path that had been blocked by a tangled heap of blue and yellow bikes. “It’s human nature not to care.”
On social media and in conversation, it is common to hear people describe bike-sharing as a “monster-revealing mirror” that has exposed the true nature of the Chinese people. In that sense, it is the latest chapter in a line of critical introspection that stretches back before the Communist Revolution, when the famed writer Lu Xun assailed Chinese culture as selfish, boastful, servile and cruel.
Much of the discussion of the mess has revolved around the Chinese concept of suzhi, or inner quality, which can encompass a person’s behavior, education, ethics, intellect and taste. Chinese often invoke “low suzhi” in criticizing the bad habits or manners of others, and have bemoaned a deficit of suzhi in Chinese society for generations, sometimes arguing that they cannot be trusted with elections because their suzhi is too low.
Technology executives who work in the so-called sharing economy and depend on good behavior for profit are now among the more prominent critics.
One start-up, 3V Bike, was forced to shut down in June after nearly all its 1,000 bicycles were stolen from the streets of small cities. In interviews with Chinese news outlets, the company’s founder, Wu Shenghua, blamed the public’s “poor suzhi” in part for driving the company out of business.
Others have argued that theft and vandalism of bicycles had been overstated, that some disorder was to be expected with innovation and that misbehavior would be worse in other countries.
Hu Weiwei, founder and president of Mobike, one of the most popular bike-sharing apps in China, said the benefits of shared bicycles far outweighed any inconvenience, noting reductions in carbon emissions and improvements in traffic.
Mobike has designed a point system to punish misdeeds like leaving a bike in the middle of a road, and Ms. Hu said she expected problems to disappear as companies became better at incentivizing virtuous behavior.“A good system can bring out people’s good will and moral values,” she said.
In the United States, Dallas and Seattle have experimented with dockless bike-sharing programs, although New York City recently issued a cease-and-desist letter to a company planning a demonstration.
Chinese start-ups are part of this global expansion, with one company, Ofo, deploying 1,000 bikes in Seattle in late August, and Mobike making its debut in June in Manchester, Britain, where similar issues of theft and vandalism have emerged.
Yunxiang Yan, an anthropologist who serves as director of the U.C.L.A. Center for Chinese Studies, said China’s roots as an agricultural society made people more dependent on a small circle of relatives and friends and less trusting of strangers. As a result, he said, many people do not see the purpose of public property and are skeptical of communal rules.
“Public properties are seen as having no owner,” he said, “therefore people believe they can take advantage of them.”
But Mr. Yan said the overall success of bike sharing suggested that mutual trust was growing in China.
Some citizens have formed volunteer groups to take up the cause of promoting the common good.
Zhao Qi, 23, an architect, spends much of his free time as a “bike hunter,” roaming the streets of Beijing looking for vandalized bikes and misbehaving riders.
Mr. Zhao said he was motivated partly by patriotism. China has been pushing for years to develop technology products that catch fire overseas. Many now see promise in bike-sharing, with the domestic news media hailing it as one of China’s four great modern inventions, drawing a comparison with the ancient inventions of gunpowder, paper, printing and the compass.
“This is a symbol of national pride — a gift from China to the world,” Mr. Zhao said. “We can’t mess it up.”
Another volunteer, Cheng Xiaofeng, 46, who works for a state-owned investment company, said she had reported more than 4,000 improperly parked bicycles since April.
“I believe that people are kind, and that human nature is good,” she said. “But sometimes they fall under bad influences and need to be corrected.”
On a recent evening, Ms. Cheng came upon a woman trying to park a bicycle inside a residential compound near the Lama Temple, in Beijing, in violation of rules set by bike-sharing companies. Ms. Cheng tried to persuade her to reconsider. The woman gave a confused look, left the bike and walked away.