China: Beijing delivery rider and labour activist is detained after denouncing worker exploitation

A Beijing delivery rider known online as 'Leader of the Delivery Knights Alliance', was detained by authorities after posting online videos denouncing worker exploitation by Ele.me, one of China's food delivery apps.
A Beijing delivery rider known online as 'Leader of the Delivery Knights Alliance', was detained by authorities after posting online videos denouncing worker exploitation by Ele.me, one of China's food delivery apps. © Bilibili

On February 25, Xiong Yan, a well-known Beijing delivery rider and labour activist known online as “Leader of the Delivery Knights Alliance”, was detained by authorities after posting online videos denouncing labour violations by China’s top food delivery apps. In the beginning of March, riders for the Meituan delivery app then went on strike in the city of Shenzhen, protesting wage cuts in an industry criticised for imposing dangerous standards of productivity on riders while paying them a pittance.

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Xiong Yan, a rider with the popular food delivery platform Ele.me, has been working in the business alongside China’s 3 million delivery riders since 2018. But online, he’s the face and the leader of the “Delivery Knights Alliance” online group, an unofficial union that supports riders and creates online videos exposing the industry’s unscrupulous labour practices. The group was established by another leader in 2019 and counts more than 10,000 riders in its multiple WeChat groups.

A January 10 Douyin video by Xiong Yan denounces the accident insurance payout for Han Yewei, a delivery rider with Ele.me who died suddenly during a ride last December.

On January 10, Xiong posted this video on Douyin (China's version of TikTok) about Han Yewei, a 43-year-old delivery rider who fell and died suddenly during a ride last December. Examining Ele.me’s insurance policy, his widow found that her late husband was being charged 3 yuan (€0.39) per day for what he assumed was an accident insurance premium. In reality, only 1 of the 3 yuan went towards accident insurance, so the family was only eligible for 30,000 yuan (€3,874) in insurance payouts. However, after netizens condemned the platform on social media, Ele.me revised its policy, increasing its death insurance payout to 600,000 yuan (€77,444).

On February 17, about a week before his arrest, Xiong posted another video in which he denounced Ele.me’s deceptive New Year holiday bonus scheme for its riders. In the video, which was viewed 553,000 on Chinese video platform Bilibili, he interviews a group of Beijing riders who chose not to go home for the Spring Festival due to the platform’s holiday bonus scheme, which promised them rewards of around 8,000 yuan (€1,033) if they fulfilled certain delivery quotas.

A February 17 video by Xiong uncovers Ele.me’s deceptive New Year holiday bonus scheme to convince riders to continue working during the Spring Festival.

However, riders complained that the quotas soon increased to impossible levels, with a volume of 380 orders per week, which would be equivalent to working more than 18 hours a day. Under these impossible rules, riders wouldn’t be able to obtain the holiday bonus for which they had given up their New Years’ festivities.

After netizens berated the platform in yet another social media uproar, Ele.me published an apology on its Weibo account on February 19, stating that it would compensate for “deviations in the quotas” by adding more opportunities for riders to be rewarded. It also clarified that the riders would still be awarded bonuses even if they didn’t meet all the quotas.

The statement, however, was met with cynicism and anger from Chinese netizens, who called the company “blood-sucking capitalists”.

On February 25, Xiong and several of his close friends were detained in Beijing for unknown reasons, reported Radio Free Asia, and have not been heard from since. According to his peers, his outspoken activism and denunciation of food delivery giants may have made authorities uneasy. 

Several days later, food delivery riders mobilised for their rights

On March 1, a video on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo shows a group of Meituan delivery riders in Shenzhen, Guangdong striking in front of a shopping centre due to a change in the application’s payment policy that would remunerate riders according to the distance of a delivery, thereby cutting their earnings.

Around the same time, netizens also noticed a significant delay in delivery from food-ordering apps like Meituan and Ele.me in Beijing, which stoked speculation that riders in the capital were also striking. However, both companies refuted the rumours, citing problems with rider capacity and other administrative issues.

Delivery rider-led strikes have increased multiple times over, from 10 in 2017 to 45 and 33 in 2019 and 2020 respectively, according to China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map.

China’s expansive e-commerce and food delivery business, built on the backs of the country’s three million delivery riders, has come under attack in recent years for the long working hours, immense pressure and dangerous conditions riders have to endure. 

A 2020 report published in Rénwù, an influential state-run magazine covering human-interest stories, says that the profession has become one of the most high-risk jobs in modern-day China, with intense competition between food delivery apps forcing riders into a race against the clock and algorithms punishing them for failing to complete orders within the allotted time.

On January 11, a delivery rider in Taizhou set himself on fire due to unpaid wages.