This article originally appeared in Caixin.
In the midst of Beijing’s app-for-everything revolution, delivery riders on the front lines struggle to eke out a living.
Living in Beijing, I am constantly amazed by the number of mobile delivery and service apps people use every day. Before coming to China I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. A bastion of techy culture, it is probably home to the largest number of delivery app start-ups in the U.S. And yet even there, the majority of residents might order something on Amazon once a month, or take an occasional Uber ride, but buying groceries, clothes, make-up, services, and regular meals via app is still primarily the realm of the very wealthy or the extremely busy. If anything, these apps are just starting to take hold.
This isn’t the case in China, where the industry is much more developed. As a Beijing resident myself, I often order meals via delivery apps. It’s incredibly convenient. Within thirty minutes of ordering, I get a knock on my door, someone hurriedly hands me a plastic container of something hot, and rushes off to their next delivery.
It’s so simple, and yet I can’t help but feel somewhat guilty. Perhaps I am just a Luddite—afraid of modernity in all its forms. But it seems too easy. I tell myself I ought to be cooking for myself more, or at least walking out to restaurants. Getting out of the house and interacting with other people seems dangerously close to becoming unnecessary. I find myself continuing to work at my desk for long hours, eating greasy fare out of plastic containers. I notice my trashcan accumulating a large quantity of boxes, and can’t help but wonder how much plastic is delivered on electric scooters every day.
In an article entitled The Shut- In Economy in Matter magazine, Lauren Smiley argues that among San Francisco’s world of upper-middle class techies where on-demand services and delivery apps have already taken off, people fall into one of two groups: isolated elites who no longer need to leave their houses, and those who serve them. Having previously worked in food service, I feel for the people bringing me my food. I know the seemingly simple logistics of getting the right plates to the right tables in a busy restaurant is tricky, let alone getting customers’ orders to them all over town. Beijing traffic can be downright terrifying on a bicycle. I couldn’t imagine having to navigate it all day. Yet, they always seem to find my house and bring me my food seamlessly, usually within 30 minutes or less. I started to wonder who these magic delivery people were.
Jia Zhijia told me he came to Beijing with his wife at the end of last year. A 34-year-old native of Hebei, he speaks with a soft, unassuming voice. Initially, he and his wife found work together, but when their boss started arbitrarily cutting wages, they both quit. “It’s very hard for two people to find work together, so my wife and I decided to split up in terms of looking for jobs,” he said. One of his former coworkers ended up working at Baidu Waimai, and helped him get the job. When I spoke to him he’d been there about two weeks.
He rides around his area of approximately three square kilometers on an electric scooter he had to buy himself, picking up orders from many different restaurants. An app on his phone rings as the orders come in. “It can be very busy sometimes. It’s not like we get orders one at a time. In one hour we might get three or four orders going to different places. And we have a time limit, about a half an hour [per order],” he tells me. Only after he completes the delivery can he hit a button to let Baidu know it has been delivered. The app has a geolocation function—if he’s too far away from his destination it’s assumed that he couldn’t have made it, and the button won’t activate.
Jia makes around 3,700 RMB a month (about $569.00). He must deliver at least 300 orders during the month, anything beyond that and he can get commission. With his monthly expenses for food and rent totaling over 2,000 RMB, he says he is not able to save money.
Asked whether he likes delivering food or not, he says, “Right now it’s hard to find a job . . . it’s not that I really like it. I’m just giving it a try. If it seems to work out then I’ll keep doing it. If it doesn’t, then I’ll reconsider.”
Like many of China’s floating population—laborers from the country-side who have moved to China’s cities to earn a living—Jia’s children have had to stay behind. While many stay because their local household registration doesn’t allow them to attend city schools, Jia says their considerations are more financial. “In our hometown the schools are not expensive,” he says. Living expenses in Beijing are very high, and with both parents working, there would be no one to take care of the children. Not surprisingly, Jia says he misses his children very much. He can probably get home to see them two or three times a year, he thinks. If he’s still in Beijing when they have summer vacation, his mother will bring them to visit.
He says that if he could find steady work at home, he would return. “Here, if anything happens you have to depend on yourself. I have coworkers here but it’s not the same as the feeling of care and support you get from family. In my life here I have to depend on myself for everything. All I do is eat, work, and sleep. That’s about it.”
The job can be dangerous, he says. A few days before our conversation, there was a serious accident in his area, and a delivery person was hit. Jia got a call from his team lead asking if he was okay. The rider was wearing a helmet and face mask similar to Jia’s, and the team lead feared it was him. Jia assured him that he was fine.
He can’t say whether he likes Beijing or not. “Right now for our purposes we aren’t really concerned with where we go, anywhere we can make money will do. I don’t have a strong feeling that Beijing is home.”
Mr. Wang (alias) came to Beijing over a year ago from his home in Xi’an. Since he could only make around 2000 RMB per month (around $300) at home, he left his wife and baby to make a living in Beijing. After working a variety of labor jobs, he found a delivery position with Meituan, another of China’s leading meal delivery companies. Like Jia, he can make 3,000 RMB a month basic salary, plus extra commission based on the number of orders delivered. Mr. Wang ways that some of his coworkers work tirelessly, taking extra shifts and working long hours to earn more.
Of Beijing he says, “People’s incomes are higher here. You need money to survive. It’s very stressful.” Even though one can make a lot of money in Beijing, expenses are so high that it’s very hard to get ahead, and he hasn’t been able to save money. Asked what his dreams are, he says he has to be practical. “I want to work to make money, to make sure my family has a stable life. Only after that could I have the money and freedom to do what I want, to study something I like, to pursue my own interests.”
Speaking to a foreigner, he says he feels envious. “We want to be like you because you have the freedom to pursue what you want, and not just worry about money.”
Surprisingly, one person I spoke to was able to make much more than the rest. Li Xiaoming is part of a small delivery team that works with the much larger company, Ele.me. According to Ele.me’s service structure, some delivery workers are employed directly, while others work for small, independent delivery companies who serve a single restaurant or group of restaurants. Li and his coworkers mainly deliver for one particular restaurant, only taking from surrounding businesses when they have extra time.
Li is able to make between 7000 and 8000 RMB a month. With his monthly expenses totaling only about 2,000 RMB, he has extra money to send home to his wife and four-year old child in Henan. Li also makes many more deliveries than the rest—between 70 and 80 per day, compared to Jia who makes between 15 and 20. Because Li only has to go to one restaurant, he is able to be more efficient. “In one trip I can pick up about 10 orders, and finish delivering them in an hour,” he says. At 3 RMB per order, he can earn over 200 RMB per day.
One thing that everyone seemed to appreciate was the job’s flexibility. Jia told me that just after he started work his grandfather passed away. He was able to get time off to go home, which he said most jobs wouldn’t allow. It seems fairly easy to get hired, and the level of commitment required is low. No one I spoke to had been doing it for more than a few months. For migrant workers, the new on-demand industry is just a brief stop on the long journey to making a living in the city.