In Zhangjiagang, in eastern Jiangsu province, an often unsung profession is in high demand this Lunar New Year season; delivery drivers.

The city, home to one of the many ports along the Yangtze river, emerged from the pandemic’s first year mostly unscathed with few reported COVID-19 cases. 

But like the rest of China, following a resurgence of infections in January in several parts of the country, the city’s 1.2 million residents have been subject to economic and transport controls leading up to the year’s biggest holiday, designed to discourage travel.

While many residents, determined to reunite with family, have skipped town early in order to avoid being snared by transport restrictions, a large portion of China’s population has chosen to refrain from going home for the week-long holiday, which begins Feb. 11.

In a normal year, the holiday is a peak time for brick and mortar stores, as consumers rush to snag gifts after returning home. But this year, much of that demand is shifting online. E-commerce and logistics are left scrambling to retain a labor force.

What sounds like a golden opportunity for delivery workers who stayed on the job, however, may be playing out differently in practice.

New year’s surprise

It was 8:15 p.m. in Shanghai. Kuang was sitting on his electric scooter outside the Grand Gateway in Xujiahui, a commercial district in the city. He looked down at his phone. There was only one order in his Ele.me food delivery app. 

Compared with January, he said, orders have plummeted. 

For delivery drivers who did not go home, the volume of work has been a far cry from what they were promised by delivery platforms. With drivers paid per delivery, slow days mean little pay. 

In nearby Zhangjiagang, Wang, a manager of the downtown area of rival delivery platform Meituan, told TechNode that he expected a shortage of drivers during this Chinese New Year. Many had already gone home, he said, and wouldn’t be returning until after the week-long holiday, which falls between Feb. 11 and 17 this year.

Delivery platform Meituan posts hiring information on the food delivery box in Zhangjiagang. (Image credit: TechNode/Jiayi Shi)

After a resurgence of COVID-19 infections in parts of China in January, central and local authorities have called for people to “spend the holidays where you are.” People who travel home, especially to rural areas, face a variety of barriers ranging from mandatory quarantine to regular testing. Meanwhile, some urban companies are offering workers bonuses to stay on through the holiday.

The Spring Festival is China’s most important holiday, and in a normal year almost everyone would spend it with family. Transport authorities project the number of trips to be made during this period to drop from 3 billion in 2019 to 1.7 billion. 

Delivery drivers won’t stop during CNY

With many people choosing to spend their holidays away from their hometowns, Spring Festival shopping has posed a new challenge to delivery and logistics, which have become a part of China’s economic backbone. 

During the first wave of lockdowns in 2020, logistics companies were caught with only a holiday-period skeleton crew, struggling to get staff back to work while focusing on relief deliveries to the then-epicenter of Hubei province. 

Online retailers have witnessed an explosion in purchases during what is normally a slack season. Data from shopping platform JD.com shows a whopping 55% year-on-year increase in orders destined for other cities during the last 13 days prior to the Lunar New Year, while for its grocery spinoff JD Daojia, the volume was twice that of the comparable period last year. 

Even China’s own State Post Bureau marked a growth in online purchases in the period leading up to the festival, in contrast with previous years when orders experience a steep drop in the week prior to the holiday. Its numbers indicate the amount of parcels being sent nationwide increased 28.94% year-on-year between Jan. 20 and Feb. 3, although lockdowns had swept China by this time in 2020, creating what could be a low base for comparison.

Deliveries during the holiday season are normally handled by JD Logistics, SF Express, and the state-backed China Post, the few companies that accept orders in this period. Much of the industry, which employs fleets of delivery workers and machines outside the national holiday, cease operations during what is normally a seven-day break.

Nearly all delivery platforms announced they will continue to operate during the Spring Festival. 

“Last year the pandemic didn’t really break out until the holiday [was underway] and the stores were all closed already.” Wang said. “This year is different. As per state policy, many stores will stay open during the holiday so there will be more orders.” 

The government’s call to “spend the holidays where you are” will fuel growth in the delivery market during the Lunar New Year, said Zhao Guojun, director of the Post Development and Research Center of Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications.

Bidding war or nice little gesture?

More than previous years, delivery companies have raised their financial incentives from previous years in an attempt to attract couriers to work for their platforms during the holiday.

  • Cainiao, the logistics arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba,, is earmarking RMB 200 million ($31 million) in financial incentives for delivery staff who work during the holiday.
  • JD Logistics will increase its budget for frontline employees, such as couriers and warehouse staff, doing holiday overtime to RMB 200 million, doubling the RMB 100 million first announced in January.
  • SF Express plans to distribute a total of more than RMB 620 million in additional pay and incentives during the holiday.
  • Delivery drivers who work between Feb. 4 to 26 on Meituan were offered up to RMB 2,610 in bonuses, with requirements such as signing into the order app on a regular basis and fulfilling a certain number of orders.

But while platforms are touting bonuses, several delivery drivers who spoke to TechNode said they were uncertain how much extra cash they would actually make. 

Li, an Ele.me driver in Zhangjiagang, expects the bonuses to be offset by slow business. In normal times, he says, he can make up to 90 deliveries on a good day, but when asked if this was likely during the new year holiday, he said he couldn’t be sure. His normal pay is RMB 3 to 5 per order, rising to RMB 15 each after 20 orders have been fulfilled. 

“The number of orders will change every day during the holiday,” he said. “I’m not expecting to get too much money from the platform.”

Yet for many workers, it’s travel restrictions, not cash incentives, that are keeping them away from family, especially given that some already forewent reunions in 2020 due to an escalating epidemic.

Tang, a Meituan driver, told TechNode that he would be quarantined for an entire month in total if he went back to his hometown in Sichuan province then came back to Shanghai, the city where he works. 

Still, the bonuses were better than nothing.

“Most of my non-Shanghainese colleagues won’t go back to their hometown,” he said, checking his phone for incoming orders. “The pay isn’t a lot, but it’s handsome enough given the circumstances. I will go back home after the holiday, when quarantine policies are removed.”

Shi Jiayi

Shi Jiayi is the Shanghai-based visual reporter helping provide multimedia elements about China’s fast-changing technology and culture. She holds a B.A. in Convergence Journalism from the University...

Emma Lee

Emma Lee is Shanghai-based tech writer, covering startups and tech happenings in China and Asia in general. We are looking for stories related to tech and China. Reach her at lixin@technode.com.