Beijing embraces gig workers’ cause – but not their activists

Ng Han Guan/AP
A Meituan deliveryman in yellow goes on his rounds in Shanghai on April 21, 2021. Meituan is China’s largest food delivery platform. During pandemic lockdowns, delivery workers were hailed as heroes, but many in the gig economy are vulnerable to poor working conditions.

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In a video that went viral in China last month, Wang Lin sits on a street curb in the darkness. “I feel wronged,” he sighs, after a grueling day delivering takeout food – and earning less than $7 total.

Mr. Wang is no ordinary delivery driver, though. He’s a senior official in Beijing’s municipal government, whose stunt was filmed to investigate this segment of China’s gig economy, which the pandemic made especially key.

Why We Wrote This

China’s gaping inequality is a test for the Communist Party, supposedly the vanguard of the working class. But that pro-worker image is often at odds with the party’s treatment of labor activists.

Chinese officials are eager to emphasize concern for labor issues – part of the Communist Party’s wider image as a vanguard of the working class. Meanwhile, however, it has waged a crackdown on grassroots labor activists, experts say, with scores of organizers detained and dozens of groups closed since 2015. The dynamic offers insight into China’s top-down approach to economic grievances – one that combines responsiveness with repression and can lead to fitful, uneven progress, analysts say.

“The Communist Party can’t acknowledge that the reason it’s doing something is because there has been a demand from below. It always has to appear as if they are being benevolent,” says Eli Friedman of Cornell University. “They have to ensure that the state is the one getting credit for those improvements, not the workers themselves.”

When Beijing labor official Wang Lin spent a day investigating life as a takeout food delivery worker last month, much more was riding on his stunt than on-time orders of dumplings and noodle soup.

Filmed panting as he raced up stairs and jogged down alleys, the balding bureaucrat was fined for a late delivery, got lost in the crowded streets of Beijing’s high-tech hub Zhongguancun, and earned just 41 yuan ($6.30) during his 12-hour shift.

But the overriding mission of Mr. Wang’s reality show-style adventure was less about exposing hardship in China’s gig economy – which now has some 7 million food delivery “riders” – than it was about dramatizing government concern over working conditions. This concern was underscored recently by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who called for “protection of the legitimate interests of truck drivers, couriers, and food delivery riders.”

Why We Wrote This

China’s gaping inequality is a test for the Communist Party, supposedly the vanguard of the working class. But that pro-worker image is often at odds with the party’s treatment of labor activists.

The propaganda push reflects an effort by the Communist Party, which calls itself the vanguard of the working class, to appear proactive on sensitive labor issues, even as it wages an ongoing crackdown on grassroots labor organizers and activists who have long raised similar concerns, China labor experts say.

The dynamic offers insight into China’s top-down approach to economic grievances – one that combines responsiveness with repression and can lead to fitful, uneven progress. “Right now, the attention is from the top down – maybe from the highest top, but ... it will just be short-term attention,” says Li Qiang, founder and executive director of China Labor Watch, a New York-based nonprofit that supports China’s labor movement.

Unequal progress

The pattern has grown increasingly stark as inequality has surged during China’s shift over the past 40 years from Maoist collectivism to state capitalism, with wealth concentrated on the east coast as the interior lags behind. Despite China’s significant progress in reducing extreme poverty, about 600 million of its 1.4 billion people still have an average monthly income of 1,000 yuan (about $150), Premier Li Keqiang said last year.

China’s have-nots include hundreds of millions of migrants from rural areas who often do not enjoy the same safeguards as urban workers. Many join the gig economy as self-employed workers and so lack labor contracts and related legal protections. Like the food delivery workers, they are vulnerable to decreasing or unpaid wages and harsh, algorithm-driven working conditions.

The narrated video of Mr. Wang’s grueling day – including a scene of him sitting on a street curb in the darkness, sighing, “I feel wronged” – was intended to convey the government’s benevolence toward the critical but exhausted food delivery workforce, hailed as heroes during pandemic lockdowns.

To a degree, it worked. The video went viral on China’s internet and won praise in the Communist Party-controlled media.

“Wang Lin’s guest appearance as a takeaway boy” follows the tradition of leading party cadres “going deep into the masses” to “accurately reflect the people’s demands ... and make the flesh-and-blood ties between the party and the people closer,” the official Xinhua news agency commented.

Grassroots pressure

Yet analysts say the party’s need to tightly control the narrative on labor issues has led to the repression of grassroots activists such as that of food delivery worker Chen Guojiang, also known as “Mengzhu.” Mr. Chen was detained together with four other delivery workers when Beijing police raided the apartment they shared three months ago.

“This was clearly a response to ... Mengzhu,” says Eli Friedman, associate professor at the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University and author of “Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China.”

“The Communist Party can’t acknowledge that the reason it’s doing something is because there has been a demand from below. It always has to appear as if they are being benevolent,” he says. “They have to ensure that the state is the one getting credit for those improvements, not the workers themselves.”

Thomas Peter/Reuters/File
Food delivery drivers pick up their parcels at a makeshift lunch hour distribution spot outside an office building in Beijing on Aug. 4, 2020.

Mr. Chen and other food delivery workers formed a mutual aid network to address day-to-day needs, including legal advice and housing. In 2019, he helped establish a Delivery Riders Alliance and took the pseudonym Mengzhu, short for “leader of the alliance.” He set up chat groups with some 15,000 drivers, posted videos, and encouraged his “takeaway brothers” to take collective action against injustices.

In February, just before his detention, Mr. Chen led an online campaign that claimed a bonus program by the Ele.me delivery platform – one of the two largest in China, along with Meituan – was a scam. He posted a video that gained millions of views and stirred public criticism of the company.

Despite the campaign’s small scale, it brought a surge of public support and succeeded in pressuring Ele.me to issue an apology and promise compensation. But it also challenged the government’s control and so spurred the arrests that followed, says Aidan Chau, a researcher at China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based nongovernmental organization. “This is something that I don’t think the government would be willing to see, a group which can motivate a lot of workers,” says Mr. Chau.

In April, Mr. Chen was accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge often used against activists.

“Their repressive capacity is so encompassing that ... they can just crack down on that bottom-up movement, and then adopt potentially little bits and pieces of it again as they see fit and on their own terms,” says Dr. Friedman.

Indeed, Mr. Wang’s day delivering for Meituan could be viewed as the party taking a page from Mr. Chen’s playbook. In the video, the party chief for the Beijing Human Resources Bureau tasks Mr. Wang, the bureau’s deputy director of labor relations, with the fieldwork – which in turn generates public pressure for Meituan to treat drivers better. The Hong Kong-listed tech giant is also under investigation in China for antitrust violations.

“I won’t deliver food forever”

China’s transition to capitalism saw a large increase in grassroots activism and strikes, leading to the passage of a labor contract law in 2008. But enforcement has been limited, and in the past 10 years the percentage of workers with a labor contract has decreased, Dr. Friedman says.

The tightening of party controls launched by Mr. Xi since he took power has also led to the detentions of scores of labor activists and closure of dozens of nongovernmental labor organizations since 2015. This leaves workers with few outlets to express grievances other than strikes. Beijing has urged gig workers to join unions, which in China must all fall under the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a wing of the party. But unions play a limited role as they tend to align with management.

Unofficial labor groups “will continue to exist, but they will be forced to remain more silent than before,” says Mr. Chau.

Beijing is unlikely to regulate significant protections for gig economy workers, fearing that could worsen unemployment, Dr. Friedman says. Despite the long hours and low pay, some food delivery drivers say they like the freedom of informal work.

Mr. Yu, a young migrant from central Shaanxi province, came to Beijing six months ago and now earns about 4,000 yuan ($620) a month delivering food six hours a day for Meituan.

“I don’t have any problems” with the work conditions, says Mr. Yu, who only gave his last name for privacy. Still, he says, “I definitely want to do a different job in the future – I won’t deliver food forever.”

Another Beijing rider, who delivers for FlashEx, and gave his name only as Mr. Wang, says he earns 12,000 yuan ($1,860) a month and saves half of it. After several more years, he plans to hang up his motorbike keys.

“Although I’ve got freedom with the Flash job, the work is intense, running the roads every day, and it’s risky,” he says via text. He also has to silently stomach rude customers to prevent any friction. “I’m afraid of complaints,” he says, “so I endure it – if I can.”

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