The World of Chinese - - Contents -

They are the linch­pins of the e-com­merce boom and even our ur­ban mid­dle-class life­style, but few con­sider the every­day pres­sures en­dured by the driv­ers who hand us our hot meals and mail. We speak to couri­ers and take­out driv­ers about life in the fast lane, be­tween cut-throat com­pe­ti­tion and kin­ship

They are the wheels of the e- com­merce boom, fu­el­ing a fast- paced mid­dle­class life­style with hot meals and next- day de­liv­er­ies. Th­ese mod­ern- day “rick­shaw boys” some­times leave chaos in their wake, dis­rupt­ing more than just traf­fic. If some con­sider them a blot on the ur­ban land­scape, many more rely on China’s kuaidi le­gions for their every­day needs. But the job means long hours, in­tense com­pe­ti­tion and bleak prospects. We take a look at life be­hind the handlebars and on the road, delv­ing into the fraught dy­nam­ics, busi­ness and brother­hood of kuaidi


Work be­gins early at the dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter of courier firm STO Ex­press, out­side Beijing’s east­ern Fifth Ring Road. Driv­ers re­port at 7:30 a.m.—6:30 a.m. if the work­load is heavy—when the ware­house doors open to re­veal pack­ages from all around the coun­try, scat­tered in heaps across the floor.

China’s de­liv­ery in­dus­try is now the largest in the world. Ac­cord­ing to the State Post Bureau, courier com­pa­nies— kuaidi (快递, lit­er­ally “quick de­liv­ery”)—pro­cessed around 31 bil­lion pack­ages in 2016, a num­ber that’s grown more than 50 per­cent ev­ery year for the last six years. An es­ti­mated 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple work as ex­press de­liv­ery­men, also called kuaidi; at peak pe­ri­ods such as the “Sin­gles’ Day” shop­ping hol­i­day, each driver may de­liver up to 300 parcels per day, piled as high as the ware­house ceil­ing.

Couri­ers are first re­spon­si­ble for sort­ing th­ese pack­ages by hand: check­ing ad­dresses, scan­ning la­bels, and tak­ing those in their de­liv­ery area to their elec­tric-pow­ered van. Liu, an STO courier, ar­ranges his in neat stacks by com­mu­nity, build­ing, and hall num­ber, be­fore set­ting out in rush­hour traf­fic to the city cen­ter. With an av­er­age 100 pack­ages to de­liver ev­ery day be­fore 3 p.m.—closer to 200 on Mon­days, since some of­fices can’t ac­cept de­liv­er­ies on week­ends—he uses any method he can to save time. Af­ter park­ing out­side his first of­fice build­ing at 9 a.m., Liu ar­ranges the pack­ages again by floor in a burlap sack and works his way from high­est floor to low­est. Oc­ca­sion­ally a pack­age is dropped off with a co-worker or in a con­ve­nient cab­i­net in the hall­way, and Liu places a call to its ab­sent owner as he sprints back to the el­e­va­tor.

The best of all pos­si­ble days is one where noth­ing dis­turbs this rou­tine. Al­though soft-spo­ken, with an al­most Zen-like at­ti­tude to­ward set­backs, Liu has a sur­pris­ingly long list of pro­fes­sional peeves—and al­most all are wrin­kles that cost him ex­tra time: “Big or heavy pack­ages; pack­ages that are strange shapes that you have to carry up stairs; places with no el­e­va­tors…res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ties, they’re slower [to an­swer], more spread out than of­fices; and com­mu­ni­ties like this one,” he says in front of a locked build­ing, where he just had to fetch a fob scan­ner from the prop­erty man­age­ment of­fice.

“Cash on de­liv­ery is the worst of all, be­cause you can’t just drop the


pack­age off out­side,” Liu adds, pick­ing one up as he speaks. It’s a prod­uct that cost 299 RMB and, as he feared, a call to the re­cip­i­ent re­veals that they will not be home un­til evening; 6:30 p.m. is as early as they can make it. Liu will have to come back then, push­ing his post-de­liv­ery work­load even fur­ther into the evening.

If a courier’s day be­gins hours be­fore they show up along­side bleary-eyed white-col­lar work­ers at their of­fices at 9a.m., it also ha­bit­u­ally wraps up late into the night. The rou­tine is re­peated seven days a week. Couri­ers work on what’s known in China as a “com­pre­hen­sive sched­ule,” which means they take turns tak­ing in­di­vid­ual days off ev­ery month, but can’t name days off ahead of time. “Sure, come along, but there’s not much to see; just hard work,” Wu, a veteran STO courier, replies when TWOC asks to shadow him for the day. Wu claims that the monotony and com­par­a­tively low pay is driv­ing many of col­leagues to join the food de­liv­ery busi­ness. But he’s not leav­ing any­time soon: “I’ve al­ready done this for so long”—three years— “and I’m get­ting older now.”

The 3 p.m. de­liv­ery dead­line is some­thing Liu has im­posed on him­self, so as not to de­lay the sec­ond half of the “out­side” part of his day: door-to-door pick­ups of out­bound pack­ages. Re­trac­ing his steps through all the morn­ing’s of­fice and res­i­den­tial build­ings, he peers at the out­boxes of any com­pany that has pre-ar­ranged for daily pick­ups, and vis­its cus­tomers who’ve made a special ap­point­ment. On a bad day, th­ese ap­point­ments, in ad­di­tion to the cash-on-de­liv­ery pack­ages, can keep him out un­til 7p.m.

But the work doesn’t stop when he strag­gles back to head­quar­ters. Be­fore evening’s end, a courier also has to wrap, la­bel, and scan the out­bound pack­ages; sort them into piles by lo­ca­tion for ship­ping; then scan the bar­code on the re­ceipts of all his day’s de­liv­er­ies and tally the to­tal pay­ment. “That could take me un­til 9:30, even 10, 11, if it’s peak time like ‘Sin­gles’ Day’,” he says, re­fer­ring to the main­land’s nu­mer­i­cally pleas­ing Black Fri­day, Novem­ber 11, when peo­ple across China treat them­selves to bil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of dis­counted goods.

Liu has only worked as a courier for a year, af­ter cy­cling through a va­ri­ety of ca­reers, in­clud­ing IT worker and sales­per­son.“[ Kuaidi] is pretty good,” he reck­ons. “You get into a rou­tine, you know the peo­ple, the places, their habits. In food de­liv­ery you earn more but there’s more down­time, which is dull, and there’s much more risk if you’re late with food.”

Th­ese “risks” can in­clude traf­fic ac­ci­dents, and rude­ness and even vi­o­lence from cus­tomers tak­ing a late de­liv­ery. For Liu, the big­gest con­flict that day had been when a se­cu­rity guard snapped at him to move his ve­hi­cle. In April 2016, an em­ployee of S.F. Ex­press in Beijing was beaten up by an irate mo­torist af­ter an al­leged col­li­sion, an in­ci­dent that pro­voked pub­lic de­bate on the pro­fes­sion’s lack of em­ployee pro­tec­tion. In the last two months, there have been at least three re­ported in­ci­dents against reg­u­lar kuaidi, in­clud­ing one in Shan­dong prov­ince in Fe­bru­ary where a cus­tomer gave a courier nine frac­tures for be­ing five min­utes late.

For­tu­nately Liu, has had no such en­coun­ters of his own. “As long as the pack­ages ar­rive, then there are no prob­lems, of course,” he com­ments wryly. Later, he ad­mits that con­flicts do hap­pen and peo­ple aren’t al­ways po­lite: “A per­son is not a ma­chine, af­ter all, and makes mis­takes.” In th­ese cases, couri­ers re­fer the cus­tomer to the com­pany, who will check the records scanned into the sys­tem at ev­ery step of the process.

There are fines for lost or late pack­ages, paid by the courier if the ev­i­dence shows the er­ror was un­der their stew­ard­ship. Liu is cagey to dis­cuss ex­act amounts, but me­dia re­ports in­di­cate fines can be hun­dreds of kuai for lost pack­ages, and up to 100 RMB for a late pack­age. Where Liu works, he says, Beijing couri­ers usu­ally start with “around 5,000 RMB” in monthly base salary with a 1 RMB com­mis­sion for each pack­age de­liv­ered and 10 per­cent of the ship­ping cost of ev­ery out­bound pack­age they pick up. He doesn’t dis­cuss ad­di­tional ben­e­fits. Last Novem­ber—af­ter a lo­cal kuaidi al­legedly died of ex­haus­tion—an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Zhuzhou branch of China Na­tional Ra­dio in Hu­nan prov­ince re­vealed that only two of 10 lo­cal firms pro­vided ac­ci­dent in­sur­ance for their de­liv­ery driv­ers, and none of­fered health or pen­sion ben­e­fits.

“In this pro­fes­sion, you ei­ther stay a very long time, or you’re gone quickly,” Liu says. He then low­ers his voice and di­vulges a ru­mor go­ing around the of­fice: His col­league and men­tor, Wu, is one of those who stuck it out, and is fi­nally see­ing some re­sults. “He gets to take some time off on the week­end now,” Liu whis­pers. “Al­most ev­ery week­end.”

At a Shang­hai dis­tri­bu­tion line for the Yunda courier com­pany, work­ers toil all night long to meet de­mand over Sin­gles' Day

The dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter of STO in Shang­hai sees its work­load triple over Sin­gles Day

Courier Liu sorts through

his de­liv­ery bag, ar­rang­ing pack­ages by floor from high­est to low­est, be­fore head­ing in­side

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