Getting Giggy With It: The Rise of China's Gig Economy

By Alistair Baker-Brian, July 21, 2022

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They’re here. They’re there. They’re everywhere. 

If you live in China, you’ve almost certainly had some interaction, however brief and impersonal, with one of the country’s many gig economy workers. In fact, we’d even wager that you’ve had some interaction with one of them on the day you read this article. 

Gig jobs – characterized by flexibility, freelancing and short-term or ‘zero-hours’ contracts, among other things – have grown rapidly in the Middle Kingdom over recent years. 

And, by many indications, China’s gig economy is not going away. If anything, it’s only going to expand.

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Image via Stefani Korn

Takeout delivery (waimai) drivers, ride-hailing drivers (think Didi), e-commerce salespeople, livestreamers and more all make up China’s ever-growing gig economy.

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Image via Stefani Korn

But it’s much more than just deliveries, taxis and sales. The online gaming industry and even dating websites have been a source of growth for gig economy jobs. 

Gig jobs can appeal to those across the whole spectrum of workers, from unskilled to university educated.

According to AliResearch, the research arm of Chinese tech giant Ali Baba, there will be around 400 million freelance ‘gig’ workers in the Chinese economy by 2036, as reported by Global Times

Carrie Huang is a Shenzhen-based headhunter with HiredChina.com, a recruitment platform that assists expats looking for work in China (that is to say full-time work). 

She points out that gig jobs are already prevalent in the Chinese job market. 

“In 2021, according to the data released by the ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the number of flexible-employment workers in China reached about 200 million,” Huang tells That’s

“Actually, some Human Resources companies are already running this section of the business. For example, Michael Page (a recruitment company) has a brand called Page Personnel to recruit flexible employment workers.” 

Huang mainly focuses on recruitment for positions in the following areas: consumer electronics; e-commerce; livestream hosting; copywriting; editing; translation; proofreading; business development; international sales; digital marketing; social media management; brand management; brand direction; PR, etc.

She acknowledges that in the future, she, as a recruiter, may not be able to resist the gig economy trend. 

“Of course, as a headhunter, I would like to follow the trend and focus on recruitment for gig jobs in the future.” 

Like so many trends nowadays, the gig economy cannot be discussed in isolation from COVID-19. 

McKinsey Global Institute is the research arm of US-based McKinsey & Company global consulting firm. In February 2021, they published a report entitled ‘The future of work after COVID-19.’  

The report states the following with regard to COVID-19’s impact on employment trends: 

“The pandemic accelerated existing trends in remote work, e-commerce and automation, with up to 25% more workers than previously estimated potentially needing to switch occupations.” 

The growth of e-commerce in post-pandemic China is particularly noticeable, with the report noting a growth of 1.6 percentage points as a year-on-year share of total retail sales. 

The sector has been key to creating gig jobs in China, including the growth in livestream e-commerce. 

What is the Gig Economy Anyway?

A gig job – you can picture an example of it in your head, but when asked to give a concise definition, you spout out a vague and nebulous description.

Diane Mulcahy is the author of the book The Gig Economy. She also teaches an MBA program at Babson College in the United States on… you guessed it… the gig economy “before it was even a thing,” according to her website

Here’s how Mulcahy defines the gig economy:

“My definition of the gig economy is quite broad. It basically includes everyone who is not a full-time employee in a full-time job. If you are a consultant, contractor, freelancer, part-time worker or on-demand worker, you’re part of the gig economy.” 

Moreover, the gig economy is “not just a fad,” according to Mulcahy; it’s here to stay. 

Based on such a broad definition, you may wonder what’s actually so new about the gig economy. After all, haven’t self-employed and temporary workers pre-dated the recent boom in gig jobs? 

According to Baidu’s MBA Zhiku (MBA智库), the key difference between older gig jobs and the new gig economy boom lies in the growth of the internet and the rise of a new type of employment dependent more on online platforms rather than traditional businesses. 

What Kind of Gig Jobs Does China have? 

While some of China’s gig industries are fueled by convenience and what some may call the “lazy economy,” others are fueled by more niche cultural trends. 

Let’s start with the obvious ones. 

Waimai Takeout Delivery Driver

Arguably one of the Middle Kingdom’s most ubiquitous gig jobs. 

Takeout delivery, or waimai, has seen a boom across China as consumers seek fast, convenient and relatively low-cost food and beverages delivered to their doors. 

Statista puts the total worth of China’s online food delivery industry at around USD61.4 billion, with Meituan Waimai as the most popular online food delivery app. 

Alibaba-linked platform Eleme also comes in strong with a 25.4% market share. 

Sixth Tone reports that the majority of delivery drivers tend to be male and hail from rural parts of China. 

Express Package Courier 

Similar to waimai drivers, the growth in express package couriers has been fueled by the convenience and laziness economy. 

Shansong is perhaps the most well-known household name in this area. Unlike traditional logistics systems, transporting packages from station to station, the company assigns a single delivery task to one courier, helping to save on delivery time.

A maximum 60-minute delivery time is guaranteed by Shansong for orders within a five-kilometer radius. 

In 2017, the company attracted USD50 million in series C investments, as reported by TechNode. 

Designated Driver

This service is offered by Didi Chuxing under the name Didi Daijia, as well as by other platforms such as E-Dai Jia. 

Had a boozy night out, but still want to get home with your vehicle? Just enter your location and destination and a designated driver on a foldable bike will find you. 

While alcohol consumption is declining in many parts of the world, it has actually increased in China, according to the 2018 Global Report on Alcohol and Health.

Furthermore, as Daxue Consulting notes, drinking alcohol is “deeply rooted in Chinese business culture”; one reason among many why the demand for designated drivers exists. 

Line-Stander

Now, here come some of the less obvious gig jobs in China. 

Once again, this is another gig job driven by convenience and possibly laziness. People who either can’t be bothered or don’t have the time to wait in line can now pay others to do that task for them. 

UU跑腿 (UU Paotui) is one of the leading platforms offering line-standing services, among other things. Click onto the line-standing section of the app and you can choose line-standers for events, the bank, restaurants, the hospital, popular restaurants and shops (wanghong dian) and more. 

Select the start time and duration and you’re good to go. 

Rental Boyfriends and Girlfriends

A trend that appears to be popular around the time of China’s Spring Festival holiday; young men and women, under pressure to get married, are eager to present a girlfriend or boyfriend to their families. 

China Daily reported on the trend in 2017, noting young single women to be particularly likely to rent a boyfriend. 

But, beware! It will cost you. The going rate can be as high as RMB1,500 per day. 

Gaming Partner

Another unique and niche trend in China’s gig economy.

“Why pay someone to play video games together?” you may ask. 

It seems for many gamers, they like the companionship and the support they get when gaming as a duo. Gaming partners can be found on platforms such as Daofeng Esports and Heizhu Esports.

South China Morning Post tried out hiring a gaming partner on the Chinese mainland. The mostly female gaming partners tend to be hired by male gamers. Apart from helping them to play better, one female gamer even admitted that in the long run, a lot of paid gamers are actually looking for sugar daddies. Who would have guessed? 

Hard Graft?

While many gig jobs offer a certain amount of flexibility, among other benefits, they can also be characterized by poor working conditions, gruelingly long hours and an unstable income. 

Working conditions among China’s takeout delivery drivers came to the fore in recent years, with big players Meituan and Eleme admitting that they needed to do better. 

Sixth Tone reported in 2020 that “flawed algorithms and demands for drivers to deliver on time to avoid punishments have created a dangerous work environment for the millions of people in China’s booming food-delivery industry.” 

Eleme later announced it would allow drivers with good records to avoid punishment for late deliveries. Meanwhile, Meituan said it would add an 8-minute “buffer” to allow drivers to slow down in traffic and therefore, reduce the risk of an accident. 

Furthermore, Meituan has recently vowed “better compensation” for delivery drivers, as well as for small- and medium-sized restaurants operating on the platform. The pledge is in line with China’s “common prosperity drive,” reports Nikkei Asia.

Du Xiaozheng from Xingtai, Hebei province previously worked as an express package courier for delivery platform Shunfeng. He took the job in Beijing after having graduated high school. 

He told That’s that while it was possible to earn good money, he had to put in a lot of hours in order to do so. 

“Before, when there were a lot of packages to deliver, I would start work just after 6am and usually work until 10pm,” says Du. 

He compliments Shunfeng by saying they always used to pay him on time. However, he also says the work left him with little time to keep in touch with his family or do any kind of recreational activities. Since quitting from Shunfeng, Du has joined the military. 

For another gig employee, who requested we only refer to her as Ms. Li, her gig job experience has been the opposite to that of Du’s.

Li, who graduated as an education major, resides in her hometown of Nandan county, part of Hechi city, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. She makes a living selling health and skincare products online, mainly targeted towards women aged 25 years and older. 

She is one of many in the Middle Kingdom taking advantage of the e-commerce boom. 

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Image via Ms. Li

The brand for which Li sells is MISS RUDOLF. Go to Li’s WeChat Moments and you’ll see a whole plethora of daily posts; each one includes products such as moisturizing beauty masks, moisturizer face cream, foundation toner, eyeshadow and more. 

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Image via Ms. Li

Many posts feature elegant-looking young models delicately applying or demonstrating how to use the products. 

The advantage of working this kind of gig job? “A lot of free time,” says Li. However, she admits that her income can be unstable. 

A Choice for China’s Young Professionals?

Gig jobs are not just a choice for China’s unskilled workforce. In many cases, young professionals may be looking for extra work to top up their income. 

The aforementioned Huang, who works full-time as a headhunter, tells That’s that she also has a few gig jobs on the side. 

“I teach foreigners Chinese and also do part-time interpretation once in a while. That brings me some extra income,” she says. 

Working gig jobs instead of full-time employment is also an option for some. Global Times points out that many of the country’s newer gig jobs are helping to free people from working morning to night in an office. 

A Shenzhen local, who requested we only use her English name, Queenie, graduated in China as an English major and also studied abroad at the Swiss Hotel Management School. She’s been a freelance teacher since 2015. 

According to Queenie, one of the benefits of working freelance is getting away from a regular office setting. 

“I don’t have to deal with complicated relationships with other co-workers like I did in previous companies,” Queenie tells That’s. “All the gossiping, snitching and irresponsibility blew my mind.”

Would she ever consider a teaching job with a full-time contract? 

“No, because I don’t get to choose teaching materials and I can’t meet the needs of all the students in a group class. That’s why I only teach one-to-one VIP classes.” 

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Image via Queenie

Queenie’s freelance teaching career has now grown into something a little bigger than a ‘gig’ job. She’s opened up a small language center in downtown Shenzhen under the name Queen’s Land where students can learn English and Cantonese face-to-face or online. 

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Image via Queenie

The Future of China’s Gig Economy

Love it or loathe it, China’s gig economy is here to stay and expected to grow over the coming years and even decades.

Gig jobs are likely to continue to employ a broad spectrum of workers, from the unskilled who see the financial benefits to university graduates who like the flexibility and freedom from a rigid office-based work schedule. 

It’s also clear that gig jobs can be created as a result of various and complicated socio-economic trends. Waimai takeout, express deliveries and line-standing are all just a tap away on a smartphone. They are indicative of a culture of convenience or even, if you’re a cynic, laziness. 

However, paying for gaming partners and hiring girlfriends or boyfriends stem from a more complicated set of niche cultural trends.

As the numbers of gig workers grow, it may be the case that we see more workers demanding better pay and conditions. This has already been the case with big waimai platforms introducing new safety measures for their workers and offering better treatment for the restaurants that use their platforms. 

The aforementioned report ‘The Future of Work After COVID-19’ notes how many people in China’s workforce are expected to have to change occupations by 2030. 

Pre-COVID-19, the number of those changing was at around 6.5% year-on-year and that’s estimated to go up to around 7.4%. 

Sectors expected to see the largest shifts include health aides, tech and care workers; STEM professionals; health professionals; business and legal professionals; and customer service and sales workers. 

The report doesn’t specifically note that new occupations will be gig jobs. However, given the prediction by AliResearch that the number of those working in the gig economy by 2036 will be around 400 million, it’s probably not unreasonable to expect this to be true in many cases.

Facts and figures aside, the gig economy is almost certainly part of your life in China – your waimai delivery, your Didi ride, the product you bought after watching a livestream, etc. 

After you finish reading this, try counting how many times you’ve interacted with a gig worker during your day, or even your week.


[Cover image via Stefani Korn]

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