by Fan Yang
posted July 25, 2019
In 2015, I met up with some members of the Washington, D.C. chapter of Fudan University’s alumni association to celebrate our alma mater’s 110th anniversary. I was the oldest in the group and had also lived in the US the longest (almost 15 years). The opportunity to learn from my younger peers about new trends in China was too good to pass up. When the term wuliu (物流) came up in our discussion of China’s economic development, I found myself struggling for an English translation. “Logistics,” a reporter-in-chief for the DC branch of The China Press (侨报) – a state-run Chinese-language newspaper targeted at overseas Chinese – quickly responded to my query. All of a sudden, I was reminded of an audio book I had listened to, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power. A chapter in that 2007 book was none other than “Things Flow,” a literal translation of “wu” (things) and “liu” (flow). Documenting the start of the journey on China’s No. 312 “national road,” or guodao (国道), the chapter begins with the sighting of trucks bearing characters like “RUI XUN WU LIU,” or Rui Xun Logistics. “Every few minutes another ‘logistics’ company truck drives past” as the road leaves the coastal metropolis of Shanghai – “It’s the boom business in today’s China: removals, relocation, moving anything of any sort is covered by logistics” (Gifford 2007, 30-32).
“Things” may be a rather limiting term for what actually “flows” on China’s roads. Those of us who travel (back) to China frequently would surely recall being in the midst of “a crazy mélange of mobile humanity” on Chinese highways (Gifford 2007, 31). A high-school friend of mine who now works in Hong Kong told me, “the flows of people, things, and information” (人流，物流，信息流) are all “essential for development of the market.” Indeed, wuliu in the Chinese context appears to always involve the entanglement of the human and the non-human.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that the term came into China via Japan in the 1970s, at the onset of Reform and Opening Up (gaige kaifang 改革开放). According to a 2003 Tsinghua University Press textbook, a team of material experts (wuzi gongzuozhe 物资工作者) attended the Third International Logistics Conference in Japan in 1971 (Diao, Li, and Wang 2003, 2). They first used the word in their report upon their return, even though at the time some were critical of the adoption of such a “foreign” phrase (Diao, Li, and Wang 2003, 2). Since the Eighth International Logistics Conference that took place in Beijing in April, 1989, uses of the word have become more common (Diao, Li, and Wang 2003, 2). A Beijing friend, for example, mentioned that a relative told her mother to “go wuliu” (zou wuliu 走物流) because of the large amount of luggage (over 60kg, or 132 pounds) that she had to bring from Beijing to her place in Hainan for vacation.
For middle-class families like my friend’s, wuliu is simply a version of kuaidi (快递，translatable as “express delivery”) for large quantities of personal items, and the same companies usually run these two kinds of services simultaneously. Historically, however, Wuliu was more often applied to the movement of industrial products. The route out of Shanghai, where Rui Xun Logistics was spotted, is lined with factories that offer a snapshot of what is hidden behind the “Made in China” label found on consumer goods in America and other parts of the world, from children’s toys to Christmas ornaments, from household items to electronic gadgets. These things flow out of the factories by way of Rui Xun Logistics and the like to airports and seaports, and finally to their global destinations. As they do, they move further and further away from the people who make up the majority of the human flow toward the east, into the coastal cities for manufacturing jobs (Gifford 34).
Referred to by the state as the “floating population” (liudong renkou 流动人口) who have since the 1980s been relocating from their registered places of origin (hukou 户口), typically in inland China, most workers only “flow back” to their hometowns in the countryside during the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival. The fast-developing national high-speed rail (gaotie 高铁) network has since 2008 enabled the state to meet the infrastructural challenge of this major seasonal flow of people. It was on one of these high-speed trains from my hometown Hangzhou to Wenzhou – both part of the commercially vibrant Yangtze River Delta – in 2018 that a fellow passenger on his cell phone used the word as a verb: “I’ll wuliu that over to you” (“我给你物流过去”). He wasn’t the only one talking business on the phone in that “second-class car” (“二等舱”); everyone appeared to be doing something important on their phones or on their laptops. A woman next to me, for example, spoke to a research partner about an ongoing biochemical experiment. Another man across the aisle seemed to be working on a Powerpoint for some sort of corporate presentation.
The expansion of the rail network does not just facilitate the production and distribution of goods and the related migration of people; it has an informational dimension as well, suggesting broader implications of the high-speed rail for wuliu. Since 2013, train tickets have been mostly booked online, through mobile apps like WeChat and AliPay, the Chinese equivalent of Paypal developed by Alibaba headquartered in Hangzhou. More importantly, increasing amounts of “logistics” seem to be taken care of on these trains by people on the move, unconstrained by the attention required for driving and enabled by portable communication technologies. The flow of things, after all, not only requires the flow of information for purposes of tracking and coordination but also demands and stimulates instantaneous and constant communication among people on the move. This generates even more flows of data.
On a high-speed train ride to Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta – another area that boasts high-speed development and concentration of global production, especially Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) – I excitedly used WeChat (a product of the Shenzhen-based tech giant Tencent) to order my lunch for the first time. Cash transaction had gone largely obsolete and “WeChat Pay” (weixin zhifu 微信支付) or AliPay (zhifubao 支付宝) is regularly used for even the tiniest snack stands in the mountains. A Shenzhen-based director of a bilingual reading school who used to be the co-investor of a clothing factory in Guangzhou said wuliu was one of the words “hanging on [his] mouth everyday” (tiantian gua zai zui bian 天天挂在嘴边), along with “product design,” “manufacturing,” and “sales.” Nowadays, in his observation, people say “I’ll send wuliu” almost as casually as “I’ll send a WeChat group message.” A quick search in 2019 on WeChat Index, an in-app feature that shows the frequency of word usage, yields over nine million hits, not quite as impressive as the 45 million mentions of kuaidi but certainly more than related terms like tongdao 通道 and sudu 速度, both at just below three million.
Mobile apps have become a significant part of the wuliu infrastructure. Food delivery apps such as Meituan and Ele.me were processing billions of orders per year by 2019. Couriers in yellow uniforms, or Kuaidi Xiaoge (快递小哥), literally translatable as “speedy delivery little big brother,” zip around the busy urban streets on motorbikes with plastic bags of noodles, dumplings, KFC, and more. This figure of the “little big brother” even made it into President Xi Jinping’s New Year Speech to the national public (via WeChat, among other channels) on January 1, 2019, as exemplary of the “tens of thousands of laboring people” (qianqian wanwan laodong renmin 千千万万劳动人民) (CCTV 2018).
Further demonstrating how the entanglement of human and non-human makes things flow was the robot that made lunch for us at a friend’s B&B in Shenzhen. Created by another Shenzhen startup, Fanlai (饭来，literally “meals come”), the robot looked quite like a rice cooker, except that what you put in was not rice but compartmentalized ingredients packaged in plastic for making fresh home-style dishes like tomato fried eggs. The Fanlai mobile app is used not only to turn on the machine but also for ordering the packages, which are then delivered to households by human couriers. The food tasted quite good, and I thought about the impact of this robot on cooking, a key logistical issue of the domestic sphere. Several middle-class Shenzhen residents told me that they hardly go grocery shopping anymore, with everything deliverable through mobile-app orders. Even my 72-year-old father who lives in Hangzhou showed me a web page of his recently ordered Nikon camera lens, where a button allows him to “track wuliu” (“查看物流”).
For many, the wider adoption of wuliu in everyday speech in recent years is largely attributable to the rise of e-commerce (dianshang 电商), reflecting its status as an infrastructural condition that facilitates urban living. These developments, as a Chinese communication scholar told me, are closely linked to the promotion of “Internet+” high-efficiency wuliu by the State Council in 2016. There is also the state-approved academic entity China Society of Logistics (Zhongguo wuliu xuehui 中国物流学会), which has produced Development Reports of China’s Logistics and has been organizing international conferences since 2002 (China Society of Logistics 2019). The beginning of the “Great Opening of the West” (xibu dakaifa 西部大开发) program in 2000 has been linked to the need to address the uneven wuliu development between China’s eastern and the western regions (Chen 2018). The National Development and Reform Commission, for example, mentions “Big Data, Big Health, Big Tourism, and Big Wuliu” as representatives of the “new industries” to focus on in the fourth “Five Year Plan” of the Western expansion program (National Development and Reform Commission 2017).
The related, fast-growing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or “One Belt, One Road,” launched in 2013 to pursue international development, also portends to exert tremendous impact on the global wuliu industry, as it seeks to expand both land and sea infrastructural connectivity between China, Europe, West and Southeast Asia, and Africa. It remains to be seen if the “grand wuliu strategy” (Xu 2019) of BRI would indeed allow “the whole world to enjoy the ‘Chinese wuliu Speed’ (zhongguo wuliu sudu 中国物流速度” (Ji 2018). Looking ahead, perhaps the most important question is how the flow of things would continue to implicate human lives, interactions, and values, given that their presence is not immediately recognizable in the word wuliu itself.
CCTV 中文国际. 2018. [中国新闻] 国家主席习近平发表二〇一九年新年贺词CCTV 中文国际. 2018. [中国新闻] Chairman Xi Jinping’s 2019 New Year’s Speech https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sajhWARyFJM.
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National Development and Reform Commission 国家发展改革委员会. 2017. 国家发展改革为负责人就‘西部大开发十三五规划大记者问 [National Development and Reform Commission Representative Responds to Press Questions]. Naitonal Development and Reform Commission. 2017. http://www.ndrc.gov.cn/zcfb/jd/201701/t20170116_835214.html.
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