China

China’s mighty ecommerce system is dysfunctional in locked-down Xi’an

The Chinese city’s strict lockdown confines armies of delivery workers to their homes. Instead, the government is doing the deliveries.

Office staff in Xi'an, China, distributing COVID supplies to households in lockdown

13 million citizens cannot get supplies and food from online marketplaces like Taobao and JD.com

Photo: Liu Xiao/Xinhua via Getty Images

China’s massive ecommerce scene has become not only the poster child for China’s booming tech industry, but also is increasingly shaping the global ecommerce industry. But the powerful ecommerce ecosystem that started germinating during the 2003 SARS outbreak and enjoyed exponential growth in 2020 is kaput in the ancient Chinese city of Xi’an, which is now on strict lockdown.

Xi’an is currently battling the largest COVID-19 outbreak in China since the initial 2020 wave in Wuhan. The city known for terracotta warriors has reported more than 1,600 COVID cases since the beginning of December. Though the number pales in comparison with the massive surge of COVID cases elsewhere in the world, Xi’an, the capital city of northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, has adopted a zero-COVID policy. The city’s 13 million residents have been under quarantine since Dec. 22, the most strict measure taken since Wuhan.

On Chinese social media, ample personal accounts from Xi’an residents complain that there have been serious shortages of supplies and deliveries of groceries since the lockdown. China has a robust logistics ecosystem; residents in major cities like Xi’an can, during normal times, get online orders delivered to their doorsteps in as little as an hour. But this time, locals in Xi’an said they have not been able to receive orders from large Chinese online marketplaces such as JD.com and Taobao for days after purchasing. The delays this time are not caused by a lack of supplies, but by a shortage of delivery workers.

A screenshot of a JD.com purchase progress shared with Protocol by a Xi’an resident shows the estimated delivery date for an order he placed on Dec. 21 as Jan. 15. Multiple transmitted COVID-19 cases were reported from JD.com’s logistics center in Xi’an at the beginning of the lockdown, and the compound was under strict confinement, according to local newspaper Huashang Daily. “I told my JD delivery guy that he could finally get some rest,” the Xi’an resident told Protocol.

But locals say other apps, such as Alibaba’s Taobao and its e-grocer Hema, are not in service most of the time, either. The Xi’an resident told Protocol that many Taobao sellers currently are not shipping anything to Xi’an. The person, who asked not to be identified, said the situation grew significantly worse after Dec. 27, when the city stepped up the quarantine measures and confined everyone to their homes.

“We’ve all been confined in our apartments since the 27th,” he said. “Delivery workers are no exception; they can’t get out, either.”

Alibaba’s official Weibo accounts indicate its ecommerce platforms have not suspended services in Xi’an, but Hema’s Weibo account did explain its delivery manpower has been significantly limited due to the COVID outbreak.

China’s 7 million delivery workers, often dubbed as riders, are a ubiquitous sight in urban areas. In Xi’an and in many other cities, they live in so-called urban villages, segments of major Chinese cities home to migrant workers and the poor.

Xi’an-based investigative reporter Jiang Xue wrote in her quarantine diary that a delivery worker she met at one urban village told her he couldn’t afford quarantine hotel costs at his hometown, Baoji, a city 100 miles from Xi’an, so he chose to stay in Xi’an even knowing the city was going under lockdown. But the delivery worker, surnamed Liu, was too late to return to his rented apartment in Shajing, an urban village with thousands of residents, on the day the municipal government ordered the lockdown. Locked out of Shajing, Liu had to share a hotel room with other delivery workers, while his already-meager income diminished further as the lockdown measures were tightened.

With the commercial ecommerce logistics system coming to a standstill, the people who are handling the deliveries of foods and supplies for Xi’an’s 13 million residents are workers of local residential communities, the lowest level of governance that enforces Party mandates and maintains social order. Jiang, the reporter, wrote that she finally snagged her first box of groceries on the last day of 2021 — through her neighborhood WeChat group, not delivered by government officials.

Video clips of residential community workers sending food to Xi’an residents have circulated widely online, but Jiang said she still wasn’t expecting a delivery of groceries from the government anytime soon. “The city’s entire logistics system is on pause,” Jiang wrote in her diary. “How could 13 million residents of the city possibly count on just community workers and volunteers for groceries deliveries?”

In her diary, Jiang quoted a popular WeChat article where one of her fellow Xi’an citizens expressed their frustration: “We have such powerful logistics systems like Tmall and JD.com, why doesn't the government make use of them? Why do they think they are capable of delivering groceries themselves?"

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