Forty pages long with an eleven-page bibliography that shows wide reading in Chinese and English, William McCormack’s essay, “A Race Against Death: Renwu Magazine’s Exposé on the Working Conditions of Chinese Food-Delivery Drivers,” reads beautifully and proceeds in a clear, logical progression.
In its pages, the author offers a close reading of a 22,000-character article on the working conditions of food delivery drivers from Renwu magazine. McCormack’s analysis of a key source for the Renwu investigation, Sun Ping, a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) official, displays his ability to ask probing questions. The author of the Renwu article, Lai Youxuan, and the editor, Jin Shi draw heavily on Sun Ping’s study, and McCormack, via his investigation and research, shows how close Sun Ping’s (and CASS’s) ties are to the Chinese government. This is a key part of the essay’s argument. Investigative journalists can bring about change in China, but they must follow unwritten guidelines carefully. They can write about the plight of the working class, but they can’t hold companies—or party officials—responsible. The food delivery industry offered a perfect case study because Lai and Jin blame non-human algorithms for the drivers’ suffering. And they cite Sun Ping’s idea of the “inverse algorithm,” which is her term for what the drivers do when the actual algorithm gives directions impossible to implement.
The most analytic (and so the most interesting) section is Chapter 3, which discusses what the Renwu article doesn’t say. Examples include the failure to mention youth unemployment, limitations of accident insurance, lack of widespread social insurance, or labor unions. Although drivers do use WeChat to form informal unions, the journalists portray each delivery driver as an independent unit. Tellingly, the only time the word “strike” appears in the article is when an electric scooter breaks down (and goes “on strike”).
The essay is a pleasurable read throughout because it stays on topic and introduces many new angles that the reader doesn’t expect.
McCormack, William James, "A Race Against Death: Renwu Magazine’s Exposé on the Working Conditions of Chinese Food-Delivery Drivers" (2023). Student Work. 14.