This article is part of a new column on cross-border migration and travel.
Jian is a postgraduate student studying in Australia. He lives close to campus, and after class each day he stops at all the various pharmacies on his way home in search of everything from health care products to baby formula — not for himself, but for his roster of clients back in China.
Jian is what’s known in China as a daigou, or personal shopper. His clients find him on messaging service WeChat, and he helps them shop for authentic products not available — or highly taxed — back home, which he then ships to them. Daigou is a lucrative business: The market in Australia — one of the main daigou terminals — is worth an estimated 2.5 billion Australian dollars ($1.82 billion).
Yet few of Australia’s daigou sellers are striking it rich. Many are international students from China, locked out of the local job market by a lack of free time as students or the discriminatory hiring practices favoring those with permanent residency. Chinese students turn to daigou because it is flexible and their nonresident status doesn’t pose a barrier to entry. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, however. To build trust with potential buyers and prove they really do have access to authentic products, sellers must constantly promote themselves and their businesses. Not only is this time-consuming, it can also leave inexperienced sellers, most of whom operate in legal gray areas, open to exploitation by unscrupulous customers.
Most student daigou lack access to regular supply and distribution channels. Instead, they rely on mobile websites and social media to promote their businesses — using WeChat in particular. And because of Chinese consumers’ entrenched distrust of e-commerce platforms, much of what they post is devoted to proving they actually live abroad.
For the most part, this process involves peppering their social media accounts with content that speaks to their international student identity. This includes photos of everyday routines, campus life, weekend trips, even exam schedules. These pieces of information reinforce their student identities, which increases their credibility as daigou, but must be selected carefully. Not every fragment of one’s personal life will lure in shoppers, and the daigou I interviewed told me they must be careful to avoid emotionally charged content or anything that may compromise their privacy.
Daigou customer turnover is high, so regularly sharing personal information to curate a reliable-seeming digital profile is vital. As Karen, a 24-year-old postgraduate student, put it in an English-language interview, “Most customers, when they add you on WeChat, they won’t talk to you. They’ll first go to your WeChat public page and read what you have posted. Then they will set up the relationship of trust by themselves.”
Another way to build client-seller bonds is to affect a care relationship. For example, sellers might take the initiative to remind clients that winter is coming, so why not pick up a high-quality, Australia-made winter coat or woollen scarf? This deliberate technique works to effectively shorten the emotional distance between customers and the student daigou traders, creating that much-needed perception of trustworthiness.
Social posts by “daigou”sellers related to their school and daily activities. Courtesy of Zhao Xinyu
However, mixing the personal and commercial carries a certain amount of risk. Tang, a first-year undergraduate student, told me she had once been contacted by a client of a friend of hers who was looking to ship some products from Australia to China. As this client had done transactions with her friend before, Tang accepted the request without hesitation. She provided the customer with her name, mobile number, and home address to deliver the products.
Nothing seemed amiss until Tang received a call from a shoe store, accusing her of credit card fraud. A flustered Tang immediately cancelled delivery of the shoes and asked the client not to contact her again. She thought it was over, but the police later visited her place and took away all her electronic devices to investigate. Scared, Tang decided to quit the daigou business.
While not representative, her experience illuminates the other side of the daigou story. For all their creativity and hard work, Chinese student daigou shoppers are vulnerable to exploitation. In my observations, gaining trust in daigou transactions is always a one-way process. The students seldom question the reliability of their customers or contemplate the possibility of clients taking advantage of them. Although they carefully curate the information they share with clients and contacts, the sheer volume of online posts they make for the benefit of a largely unknown audience can still put them in danger.
Sellers’ lack of legal and policy know-how poses another problem. New to the host countries, most student daigou traders launch their businesses with the support and expertise of friends and local Chinese communities. They don’t know exactly what they should be careful about or the details of the relevant laws. And the informality associated with daigou typically precludes them from official support and protection in both China and their host countries.
There have been some attempts to address this situation, though not necessarily to the traders’ benefit. On Jan. 1, 2019, China’s first comprehensive e-commerce law came into effect. Under the new law, all daigou traders were required to formally register as e-commerce businesses, subject to taxation in China. The law shows the Chinese government’s determination to better regulate and formalize the e-commerce market — including cross-border trading — and protect consumer rights.
For student daigou traders, however, it does little but restrict their ability to participate in the industry. Mostly seeking a balance between study and daigou, Chinese international students are in no position to comply with the new law, which brings added burdens, but little in the way of protection or guidance.
Even before the new regulations went into effect, most of the student daigou shoppers I spoke with were already well aware of the precarity and vulnerability of their chosen industry. “You know, daigou will not be a long-lasting phenomenon,” Jian said. “It is just something that you do to earn some quick money. When policies change, or the customs laws tighten, it will disappear.”
The challenges associated with the industry have only grown starker over the past eight months, as daigou sellers have been battered by both the COVID-19 pandemic and additional scrutiny from their host countries.
That’s unfortunate. Daigou are an innovative part of the grassroots economy. I hope one day the industry will be recognized and protected for what it is: a creative outlet for Chinese international students to cope with job-market marginalization in host countries.
Editor: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Moment/People Visual)