Amid public concerns about China’s grim job market, a 2021 claim that more than 70,000 master’s degree graduates were working in food delivery in China began circulating online. China’s official media dismissed the number as misinformation and “typical rumor.”
However, the Asia Fact Check Lab’s research found that the widely held estimate is credible. In contrast, the Chinese cyberspace administration used misinformation to debunk the claim and calm fears fueled by domestic job shortages.
Unemployment is a hot topic in China. Nominal unemployment rates reported by the National Bureau of Statistics had hit a 20-year high in 2020, with 10.6 million unemployed. In 2021, the number fell slightly to 10.4 million unemployed.
Faced with the challenge of finding steady work, many college graduates have flocked to jobs previously considered undesirable for the more educated — driving taxis, waiting tables and delivering food.
Video bloggers worried about China’s sluggish labor market soon began creating content based on data from industry reports published by the country’s two largest takeaway companies, Ele.me and Meituan. Their videos estimate that there are “70,000 master’s degree delivery drivers” in China.
An article published on the Shanghai Piyao (Shanghai Debunking Rumor) website soon called the claim a “typical rumour”. Piyao is a website jointly created by the Shanghai branch of China’s Cyberspace Administration and Jiefang Daily, the mouthpiece of the Shanghai Communist Party Committee.
Vloggers base their estimates on industry reports, claiming that more than 70,000 grocery delivery workers in China have master’s degrees.
Meituan and Ele.me are China’s two largest grocery delivery platforms, covering 90% of the market share. They each surveyed a subset of their part-time delivery workers on a range of questions, including subject, job satisfaction, and education. The Ele.me report surveyed 9,896 drivers, while the Meituan report surveyed more than 118,000. Each report claimed that 1% of the survey sample population had a master’s degree or higher.
The vloggers put the total population of food delivery drivers in China at 7 million, according to a separate report by CCTV, China’s official state media, and estimated that 1% — or 70,000 — of those drivers had a master’s degree.
Can insights from 118,000 drivers be transferred to 7 million drivers?
In an attempt to refute the vloggers’ claim, Shanghai Piyao’s article states that the inclusion of part-time drivers in the survey’s samples skews its results, since many college students work in these positions. The article goes on to claim that because the Meituan report “only surveyed 118,000 people,” its findings cannot be extrapolated and applied to all delivery drivers in the country.
AFCL determined that both piyao claims were false. The criticism that a large number of part-time students skewed the results is irrelevant as both industry surveys indicate that 1% of their delivery drivers have a master’s degree or higher.
Second, the sample sizes in both reports are statistically acceptable. According to the law of large numbers, once a random sample from a group reaches a certain “critical size,” the results of the sample should accurately reflect the entire group. For the estimated 7 million delivery drivers in China, a researcher would need 9,475 respondents to show a 95% confidence level with a 1% margin of error, and 26,000 respondents to show a 99.9% confidence level. Therefore, both the Ele.me sample of 9,896 and the Meituan sample of 118,000 are more than large enough to provide an accurate picture of the academic qualifications of all snack food suppliers in China.
Such methods are also used in China’s official statistical survey. In June 2022, the National Bureau of Statistics of China randomly surveyed just 160,000 families across China, a nation of over 1.4 billion people, to report on the nation’s status in terms of household income and spending.
The National Bureau of Statistics projected median household income using a sample of just 160,000. The same sampling method is used in the Meituan and Ele.me reports.
Are 7 million and 70,000 credible estimates?
The Shanghai Piyao article went on to conclude that the estimates of 7 million and 70,000 drivers are a “hodgepodge of numbers cobbled together on social media without any official statistics supporting them.”
AFCL found this allegation false. The 2020 figure of “a total of 7 million takeaway drivers” comes from China’s National Postal Service, the government agency responsible for monitoring delivery drivers in the country. This figure is even quoted in a report by CCTV’s own business channel, which seems to invalidate the claim that there are “no official statistics related”.
It may come as a surprise that as many as 70,000 college graduates would choose a job in grocery delivery, traditionally considered a low-wage “blue collar” job in the US. In China, however, the field is relatively well paid. Drivers can earn up to 10,000 yuan a month (around US$1,450). For comparison, many migrant workers in big cities earn as little as 3,000 yuan while working as security guards and cleaners. Additionally, COVID has actually increased the demand for food delivery workers as many restaurants are transitioning their business model to delivery only.
Such a job would appeal to the many people in China who have faced temporary employment streaks in the wake of COVID. While the exact unemployment figures vary by region, a 2022 report by China’s Bureau of National Education Statistics put the unemployment rate among urban youth aged 16-24 at 19.9%. Not only young people are affected. A nationwide study conducted from 2015 to 2020 showed that the number of unemployed doctoral graduates rose to a high of almost 8.7% during this period.
A food delivery man rides a scooter loaded with orders down a street in Beijing on November 25, 2022. (Photo by Jade Gao / AFP)
The claim that 70,000 delivery drivers in China have a master’s degree is an estimate based on statistically credible figures from 2019. The number of delivery drivers has likely increased since the pandemic began. Contrary to official claims, it appears that those who “disprove” the “rumours” are the ones trying to sweep a glaring issue under the rug.
1) 2019 report by Ele.me
2) Yale Insights – Study suggests local Chinese officials are manipulating GDP
3) Unemployed urban labor force statistics
4) “Are 70,000 graduate students delivering takeout? Don’t let all the tabloid hype fool you.”
5) A representative of the team that wrote the above article gives an award speech.
6) China’s youth unemployment rate is 20%. The real numbers are possibly even higher.
7) 2015 – 2020: Data Analysis of Chinese PhD Students’ Careers.
8) What should we do when the youth of our country are delivering snacks?
9) Annual Academic Grant Report (2020) Structuring and Coding Guide
10) July data from National Bureau of Statistics. Published on August 15, 2022
11) Sample Size Calculator