William McCormack (Timothy Dwight College) was the winner of the 2023 Williams Prize in East Asian Studies for his essay submitted to the East Asian Studies Program, “A Race Against Death: Renwu Magazine’s Exposé on the Working Conditions of Chinese Food-Delivery Drivers.”
The Council on East Asian Studies had a chance to catch up with William at the end of the spring term and he kindly answered a few of our questions about his essay.
To begin, could you please provide an abstract or brief summary of your essay entitled “A Race Against Death: Renwu Magazine’s Exposé on the Working Conditions of Chinese Food-Delivery Drivers”?
My essay considers food-delivery labor in contemporary China. I analyzed a widely-read Renwu Magazine feature published in September 2020 that spotlights the work of delivery drivers employed by China’s most popular on-demand food-delivery platforms, Meituan and Ele.me. My essay dives into this longform investigation, examines its sympathetic characterization of delivery drivers, assesses the context that surrounded the article’s publication, and considers what the article does not discuss.
The investigation really directs criticism for drivers’ dangerous, time-pressured, and low-paid work towards the platforms — and specifically, towards the companies’ non-human algorithms — while generally ignoring how government policies, broader economic conditions, and local labor organizing affect drivers’ situations (or lead them to gig-economy delivery work in the first place). These omissions highlight the limits that constrain investigative journalism in contemporary China. Still, pieces of journalism like this Renwu feature can be impactful. The article affected public discourse over the next year and pushed Meituan and Ele.me to announce immediate policy changes that ostensibly eased a degree of drivers’ pressure.
I also focused on the reaction to the investigation, which quickly went viral, among the general public; by the platforms; and by state media and government agencies. Ultimately, my essay considers how increased public awareness of drivers’ labor grievances directed government’s treatment of workers and platforms: as awareness of drivers’ labor conditions and discontent expanded, officials and government agencies increased regulation of platforms and public acknowledgement of drivers even while they simultaneously cracked down on driver activists.
Understanding this playbook for managing grievances, especially those raised by flexibly-employed workers, and how it might evolve is important as slowing economic growth increases the possibility of future labor unrest in China.
How did you first get interested in your topic of research?
I developed the underlying interest for this essay when I lived in Beijing on a Light Fellowship during summer 2019, after my first year at Yale. Upon arriving, I was fascinated by how many food-delivery drivers I saw zipping through the streets on their two-wheelers, handing off plastic bags of packaged orders, and hovering outside malls waiting for new assignments. They were ubiquitous, a complete staple of the cityscape, and they really stood out because their corporate attire is so bright — yellow for Meituan, blue for Ele.me.
I have really enjoyed studying Mandarin since the start of high school, and cities have always fascinated me — I was born in New York City and moved to Boston when I was an infant. Spending that summer in 20+-million-person Beijing helped me identify urban issues in contemporary China, particularly how people and goods move through cities, as the root of my interest in the country and East Asian Studies. As a labor force, delivery drivers embody this movement given the nature of their work — and the fact that many are migrants who move to big cities for work.
The pandemic raised the profile of delivery workers around the world, and that’s when I began to wonder if some sort of senior essay about food-delivery labor in China might be possible. My personal interest in the gig economy developed around the same time. I worked part-time as a delivery biker in 2020, completing about 200 Uber Eats orders over the course of four months in Boston. The experience prompted me to think more about the Beijing Meituan and Ele.me drivers I had observed from a distance the summer before, even though my work was much less intense, stressful, and dangerous than the labor of Chinese food-delivery workers — and many American drivers who rely on gig work for their main income.
What would you say was the most interesting finding of your research? Were there any surprises?
Honing in on what the magazine feature doesn’t say or de-emphasizes was interesting. For example, the investigation portrays delivery drivers as independent and unaware players in an “infinite game” of rushing orders around. This depiction is incomplete; in reality, many drivers participate in large mutual-aid group chats, and local strikes organized by delivery drivers increased sharply in the years before the investigation’s publication. But the only time the verb for labor strike (bagong 罢工) appears in the 22,000-character feature is to metaphorically describe a driver’s damaged scooter breaking down.
Considering why the feature may have left out other angles for understanding drivers’ situations and focused so much on algorithms also led to some interesting discoveries. Once I was pretty deep into the first draft, I realized that the investigation’s main source, a researcher who’s referenced about twenty times across the feature’s dozen sections, works for a large think tank with ties to the CCP. The research institute’s president gained a seat on the Politburo last October and also became head of the CCP Central Committee’s United Front Work Department. The researcher’s interest in digital algorithmic labor may be totally natural, but it was interesting and illustrative to identify that high-level association between the Party, the source, and the feature’s selective focus.
Despite these absences in the article and its relatively narrow diagnosis of drivers’ problems, I was surprised by how much the investigation still achieved. It seemed to substantially influence public discourse around drivers and how government discussed drivers in the year following its publication. The day after its release, there was so much buzz that Meituan and Ele.me both announced policy changes and expressed support for drivers. A handful of months later, Xi Jinping referenced delivery drivers in a speech the same week that a Beijing government official went undercover as a Meituan delivery driver in a viral video, only earning the equivalent of about $6 in 12 hours. Another subtle “a-ha!” finding was when I noticed a mini allusion to delivery drivers in the introductory montage to China’s 2022 CCTV New Year’s Gala show (the world’s most-watched TV program).
What was the most challenging part of your research?
Studying food-delivery labor without having access to delivery drivers or the ability to add an ethnographic component to the project. It would have been great if that was possible in a world with no pandemic and seamless research access to China, but that is a definite limitation to my essay.
I was lucky that so many Chinese and English sources for my project were available online, in part because so much of my topic — the feature’s publication, the reaction, platform labor itself — played out digitally. But I also found it hard to manage just how much the internet gave me. It was difficult to sift through various resources — the Renwu article itself, Western and Chinese print and broadcast news, social-media commentary, ethnographic studies, Chinese state regulations — and make sure I was combining them in a way that worked for an interdisciplinary essay/contemporary history. I sort of felt like an orchestra conductor might, trying to highlight different findings without letting any single strain of research or source type overpower the whole piece. That could be a challenging balancing act.
What resources at Yale were the most helpful for your research?
Do the people count? My senior-essay advisor Valerie Hansen was incredibly helpful as I developed a focus and structure for my essay. (Given Professor Hansen’s specialty in classical China and my interest in contemporary Chinese cities, we were an unlikely pairing but a great match.) She inspired me to see the project as a contemporary history and encouraged me to approach the magazine feature like a historian would.
Others at Yale with ties to the Council on East Asian Studies generously lent me their time and advice at the start of the semester as I considered different approaches to studying food-delivery labor, including David Borgonjon, Zeren Li, Odd Arne Westad, Peng Peng, Zekun Zhang, Dan Mattingly, and Yale’s librarian for Chinese Studies Michael Meng. These early meetings were really helpful as I was narrowing my focus and considering sources to build a project around.
I also want to shout out the access to quality journalism that Yale and the Yale Library enable: everything from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to specific China-focused publications like The Wire China. That access helped a lot with this project, but more importantly helped me explore ideas, develop my thinking, and stay informed throughout my experience in the major and at Yale.
Were you able to travel to Asia during your time at Yale? If so, where and when, and what type of program? Did you go on a Light Fellowship?
Thankfully, yes! COVID interrupted access to East Asia, and especially China, for the bulk of my college experience, but I was lucky to spend a summer in Beijing in 2019, right after my first year at Yale and right before the pandemic, with the Light Fellowship. I attended the Harvard Beijing Academy at Beijing Language and Culture University and learned from a great group of really dedicated instructors. My Chinese improved significantly, and that summer in Beijing seeded the idea for my senior essay.
How important would you say your language study at Yale was to your research?
Crucial. I’m very grateful for the truly phenomenal language instructors I was lucky to meet, interact with, and learn from at Yale, including Yu-Lin Wang Saussy, William Zhou, Min Chen, and Wei Su. Two specific classes — William Zhou’s “Chinese for Current Affairs” and Min Chen’s “Chinese for Global Enterprises” — prepared me to handle the news reports and economics terminology I encountered most often in this project. Getting to spend a year with language partners in Yale’s Fields program for advanced language study was also a great opportunity. I want to thank my main high school Chinese teacher, Penghua Shen, at the Belmont Hill School for sparking my interest and giving me my language foundation.
When you had some downtime on campus, what did you like to do for fun? Any particular interests or hobbies related to East Asia?
My main involvement and hobby on campus was journalism. I was the Sports Editor and Digital Editor of the Yale Daily News and covered Yale’s men’s basketball program for three years. While there was no explicit East Asia connection on the men’s basketball beat, the first story I wrote about the program, as a first year in fall 2018, was actually about the team’s preparations for a weeklong trip to Shanghai for the Pac-12 China Game. Yale opened its season that year with a special nonconference game against Cal/UC Berkeley in China, and the team supplemented their preseason basketball prep with a few weekly classes on basic phrases and the city of Shanghai.
I had fun working with the Yale-China Association as an NHPS Chinese Language Teaching Fellow the year before I wrote my thesis, tutoring 9th and 10th graders beginning Chinese. I loved eating out and running in New Haven and if I wasn’t at a basketball game, watching friends’ concerts. And I made many, many trips to Olmo for weekend bagels.
What advice would you offer to rising seniors about how to tackle their senior theses?
Hmmm. I would recommend keeping an informal list — on your Notes app or somewhere quick and easy — where you can keep track of random ideas or curiosities related to your major or area of interest. It might be a news story, a TV show, a billboard, or a conversation with a friend that sparks an idea. Holding onto these can help you identify common themes, see how they fit together, and develop a menu of potential topics. I would also recommend doing a two-semester thesis if it fits with your schedule. I chose a one-semester project because of my off-cycle graduation, but I always felt a step behind with the compressed timeline and felt like I didn’t have enough of a chance to meander during the research process or follow random leads (or often felt a little guilty if I still did).
What will you be doing after graduation?
Because of a COVID-era gap semester, I graduated from Yale in December 2022. I interned in the NCAA men’s basketball office this spring; traveled to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan; and will start a job at Boston Consulting Group in NYC this September.