HAIQING YU. Inside the world of the Chinese shoppers who are unnerving Australians.

Reports on daigou (personal shoppers) in Australia have evoked mixed feelings about Chinese presence and influence in Australian everyday and economic lives.

From the moral panic about Chinese invading and disrupting Australian way of economic life to the recent call to ‘embrace them’ by cross-border e-commerce and business communities, daigou continues to evoke both fear of and fascination with Chinese pursuit and display of economic power. As the scale and murky nature of daigou is better known today, it is time that we got to understand daigou beyond the economic dimension.

My interest in the daigou phenomenon started in 2013 when I suddenly found myself having difficulty buying baby formula for my son in Randwick, NSW. I had to try several supermarkets and pharmacies before finally getting two tins from a different suburb, even though I was not going for brands popular among daigou and their customers. I knew many Chinese students at Sydney universities were engaged in the daigou business. I knew Australian baby formula, supplements, skincare and sheepskin products were especially popular among Chinese clients of Australian daigou, because of their lack of trust in the quality of Chinese products or the authenticity of ‘foreign’ products sold in Chinese shops and on Chinese e-commerce platforms. Clients of daigou are mostly Chinese middle-class consumers, who have been exposed to foreign products and brands through digital media and communication platforms, overseas travel, visit, study, work, or immigration. The market is huge; and the economic imperative is obvious.

But how do daigou view themselves and their business experience in the trans-border transactions?

The explosion and continued growth of the daigou business testifies the economic drive behind the multi-billion-dollar industry chain from shopping, posting, transporting, warehousing, to social media marketing and customer services (often via Chinese social media and social commerce platforms like WeChat and Little Red Book). This is despite Chinese and Australian governments tightening their regulations on cross-border e-commerce, amid concerns of tax loopholes in the informal digital economy. Some part-time or ‘pick-and-pack’ personal shoppers have taken daigou as a profession that offers flexibility in working hours and patterns and decent income. A small number have moved up the daigou hierarchy as master or mega daigou, with specialty stores, large warehouses, direct access to manufacturers and wholesalers, logistics services, marketing and customer services.

Chinese are not alone in the cross-border trading business in Australia. Other Asian migrant community members are also part of the huge shopping army. This includes not only students and visitors (including tourists and those on temporary visa) but also Australian permanent residents and citizens. Chinese daigou are mostly talked about for their large scale, impact on Australian retail business, and racial profiling in media reports. For example, more than one Chinese daigou has told me that Vietnamese daigou is the fastest growing force and the big shot in the daigou business is a Vietnamese immigrant in West Sydney, owner of several pharmacies and competitor of AuMake (owned by Chinese migrants and listed on ASX, serving more than 40,000 daigou customers).

The sheer number of Chinese daigou and the volume of their trans-border transactions have made the Chinese stand out among peers and competitors in Australia. They think they contribute significantly and lawfully to the Australian retail sector. They feel frustrated to see themselves being portrayed as fraudsters, rule-breakers, tax evaders, or shady characters and ‘thugs’ among the Chinese population in both English and Chinese-language media in Australia. Media condemnation on the unruly and greedy Chinese daigou, who wipe milk formula off shelves despite the restriction imposed by supermarkets and pharmacies on the maximum number of tins a customer is allowed to buy, has left an unsavoury taste of racism to these Chinese shoppers, who have experienced verbal abuse from (non-Chinese) fellow shoppers in Australian supermarkets. The bias against daigou and racist reaction to Chinese shoppers have impacted the broader Asian migrant community. Many Australian mums of Chinese heritage like myself have either encountered direct verbal abuse from shop assistants who refuse to sell baby formula to us or latent racist glances from fellow shoppers when they see baby formula in our shopping baskets. I do not need to get close to the baby formula section in supermarkets anymore. But the bitter taste lingers.

Being a daigou can be a choice for some people as a temporary solution to their financial welfare. It can also be a career path toward micro-entrepreneurship and even trans-border importing and exporting business in the formal economy, like the mega or master daigou who have registered as formal businesses. No one whom I have talked to sees daigou as a career. Daigou is seen as a form of self-employment driven by both ‘necessity’ and ‘opportunity’. Most reports have focused on the ‘opportunity/choice’ or ‘pull’ factor in getting people into the daigou business, such as the baby formula scandal in China and the subsequent high demand for foreign (including Australian) products (among other things) by Chinese middle-class families.

Quite often it is the ‘necessity’ or ‘push’ factor, combined with the ‘opportunity’ or ‘choice’ factor, that contributes to people’s decision to enter the daigou business. The number one factor would be their limited access to the Australian labour market and consequently their voluntary exclusion from both the mainstream and diasporic labour markets.

Most international students from China wish to gain experience outside university campuses and classrooms, or to earn an extra income to ease family financial burden. Their visa allows them up to 20 hours in part-time or casual employment per week. Many of them have hoped to get a locally-based part-time job in an English-speaking environment so they can improve their English, familiarise with Australian culture and workplace culture, and prepare themselves for a career in the mainstream job market. They often find themselves being excluded from such opportunities, sometimes because of their race (by their surnames in job applications) and other times because of their lack of language and cultural capacity to work with customers and co-workers. Although there are opportunities in the Chinese diasporic labour markets (mostly Chinese restaurants and related businesses), they are considered to be ‘low-skilled’, ‘inferior’, and exploitive.

The experience of one small-time-turned-professional daigou whom I have followed over the last three years is illustrative of most ordinary Chinese proxy shoppers. I call her Yan, a nurse in China. She came to Sydney with her boyfriend (a mechanical engineer) three years ago on a work and holiday visa. They were keen to work in the mainstream job market. Their lack of English language proficiency aside, the lack of social capital in Australia and lack of understanding of Australian workplace culture, meant they were unable to land a ‘decent’ job. They ended up in poorly paid and labour-intensive jobs in the Chinese ethnic labour market: she as an office assistant in a Chinese real-estate agency and he as a fast-food delivery boy for Chinese restaurants and home kitchens. In the meanwhile, in her spare time Yan started to buy Australian products and ship them to China for her family, relatives, friends, and friends’ friends, at their requests. Profit or material reward was not her motivation or incentive initially. This is similar to many of my students, who value the flexibility and sense of autonomy that earning own money entails when negotiating their independence with their parents.

But Yan soon realised that she could combine family and friendship obligations with the opportunity to improve her knowledge about Australian products and her business skills. After three months, she quit her job and became a full-time daigou. Her boyfriend soon did the same. Within two years they have grown their regular clientele from under 50 to over 300 people, just on WeChat alone. They also use other Chinese social media platforms, including Weibo, Baidu Tieba, Zhihu, Xianyu, QQ, and Douyin, to market Australian products and their daigou business. Yan is now on a student visa studying accounting in a Sydney TAFE, while her boyfriend has just finished his study in business management. They have learned a lot in the three years in Sydney, about doing business in Australia, about Australian products and business culture, and about their own entrepreneurial potential. They have also learnt to remain humble but dignified when facing racist attacks and derogatory comments on daigou. Yan and her boyfriend are now interested in starting their own business in trans-border trading, as a viable career path. Daigou has become a self-fashioning process that has the potential to lead to financial and social mobility as well as transnational entrepreneurship.

Haiqing Yu is Associate Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Principal Research Fellow in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, Australia. Her research focuses on China’s digital media, communication, and technology, and their sociopolitical and cultural impact in China, Australia and the Asia Pacific.

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