Delivery apps have transformed urban life in China
They have also created a new kind of worker
During the recent peak of covid-19 cases in China, large metal shelving-units appeared at entrances to residential compounds across Shanghai. Outsiders were not allowed in. But somewhere was needed to hold the myriad packages ordered online by the millions of residents who were staying at home. The shelves groaned under the weight of disinfectant and vitamin tablets, sacks of rice and flour, cooking oil and vegetables.
Food-delivery firms played a crucial role in helping people in China endure the lockdown that began in Hubei province in late January, and the less stringent forms of quarantine that were subsequently implemented in cities across the country.
Since early March there have been very few newly detected cases of covid-19 except among travellers from abroad. So controls have eased, allowing shops and restaurants to reopen. But many people are playing safe and staying largely housebound. State media have been calling home-delivery workers “heroes”. Few would disagree.
Even before the crisis they were beloved of urbanites. The combination of an abundant supply of cheap labour, a large middle class and near-universal access to smartphones had fostered the growth of online food-delivery services to a degree unmatched in the rich world.
People could have everything from coffee to congee whisked to them in under 30 minutes on the back of a scooter, typically by one of the sector’s two titans, Ele.me and Meituan-Dianping.
More than 400m people, or about half of the country’s internet users, had encountered a waimai xiaoge, or “takeaway lad” (more than nine in ten are men) at their door. Residents had become so used to receiving hot meals from them that they jokingly compared them to parents.
After the novel coronavirus hit, their services became a lifeline. When officials told firms to stay shut, they allowed exceptions for “essential” services, including those delivering cooked food and groceries. Wary of eating meals prepared by others, many people turned to online supermarkets.
Sales of dumpling wrappers and sauces grew more than sevenfold on Meituan’s grocery service—even as takeout orders more than halved, as the giant reported in a downbeat first-quarter forecast. The new joke is that the covid-19 epidemic has turned China into a nation of chefs.
The lives of the xiaoge have changed, too. Zhang Shuai, a 24-year-old from the central city of Zhengzhou who delivers for Meituan in Shanghai, has to wear a mask while working. The firm takes his temperature twice a day, notes it on a card pinned to his jacket and uploads it to the app for users to see. He undergoes many more checks when he picks up orders and carries them into residential compounds, most of which are now open again to outsiders.
Yet the job is still alluring to people like Mr Zhang. Indeed, he signed up with Meituan when infections were mounting. It was just too hard to find any other job, he says. And, at 10,000 yuan ($1,400) a month, his earnings are higher than the average urban wage in Shanghai, partly thanks to subsidies from Meituan and tips from grateful customers.
He will quit only when the disease ends. Another migrant worker says he shares his single-room accommodation with five other riders. Is he anxious about living cheek-by-jowl with them? “I’m not afraid of death,” he grins, speeding off.
The gig economy has transformed Chinese cities. Young workers from villages were once largely invisible to urban residents as they toiled on production lines. Now many of them eschew regimented factory work in favour of less structured lives. They have become omnipresent, clad in their firms’ coloured jackets and weaving perilously through traffic.