Hive Box: Controversies over Automation, Privatization, and Negotiability

Hive Box: Controversies over Automation, Privatization, and Negotiability

The case inspires us to rethink whether the complete, neat, and organized automation is truly more superior to conventional service models that involve the “messy” but negotiable human factors.

Written by Jack Linzhou Xing
Published on 27/12/2020

Imagine you bought something online and it is delivered by express delivery. Now the courier is coming, but you are busy at work. What should you do?

Conventionally, you may call the security staff of your residential district and let him or her collect the package for you. Or you may just let the courier drop the package next to your door. If you are in urban China, you have another choice – the Hive Box.

Hive Box is the name of an automatic self pick-up and drop-off device. Usually located near office buildings or residential districts, it allows couriers to drop the package and receivers to pick them up, or vice versa. When the courier drops the package in one of the cubes in the Hive Box, he or she needs to scan the barcode on the package by the scanner of the Hive Box, so that the system will send a message to the phone number left by the receiver. With a code in the message, the receiver can open the cube and get the package.

The Advantage of Automation

The technology behind the Hive Box is simple. It contains a barcode system, cubes with automatic doors, and a system to connect with express delivery companies. Given the widespread usage of smartphones and mobile Internet in urban China, the Hive Box is very convenient for the majority of users. This simple invention serves as automation of and substitution to the security staff solution and the drop-next-to-door solution. It is said to have several major advantages.

First, it is safer than conventional solutions: Whereas the security staff may mistake various packages, and packages dropped next to your door are subject to possible loss, the Hive Box and its electronic system seldom make such mistakes. The packages, barcodes, location of cubes, as well as the passwords to open the cubes are all strictly corresponded one-to-one. This clear and strict correspondence and organization can minimize the chance of loss and mistake.

Second, it saves the time and effort of both the receiver and the courier. Receivers no longer need to notify security staff or worry about loss, while couriers no longer need to negotiate with receivers and security staff about when to deliver packages and whether to leave them to the security.

The Problems of Automation and Privatization 

Nevertheless, automation does not originate from a vacuum. The Hive Box, literally translated in Chinese as “fengchao (丰巢),” is operated and controlled by China’s largest private express delivery company, SF Express (顺丰速运), with some shares also controlled by other express delivery companies such as ZTO (中通) and ETO (圆通). Therefore, the Hive Box is an additional service provided by SF Express to facilitate its couriers and customers, though originally for free. Such a neat and organized automation operated by a private company and aimed at substituting customers’ personal efforts and community services can cause problems and controversies.

Fig. 1  A set of hive boxes in Shenzhen. Photo by S Y Cheng.
Fig. 2  SF Express Locker System in Hong Kong. Photo by S Y Cheng.

The original problem is about the materiality of the neat organization. While the design of cubes can ensure clarity and security, it limits the space of storage – the number of cubes in one set of Hive Boxes is limited compared to the space of the security office (in which packages can be piled altogether in a messy but space saving way). Partly out of this concern and partly out of profit concern, SF Express is incentivized to charge customers for the usage of the Hive Box to encourage them to quickly pick up their packages.  On April 30, 2020, the SF Express announced that it would charge customers for packages stored in Hive Boxes over 12 hours.

It seems that the charge is reasonable – you are simply enjoying a storage service! But this announcement has caused controversies. First, given that since 2015, the Hive Box has always been a free service, people had almost forgotten the fact that it was controlled by a for-profit company. Second, although the Hive Box was implemented by the company, it occupies public spaces such as places in the residential district or office buildings – how can you make a profit upon the spaces that belong to either everyone or the property management?

Besides these problems of “legitimacy,” the charge also involved practical issues. First, starting from when should the Hive Box charge? How is the standard of 12 hours decided? What is the amount of charge? Conventionally, even if security staff are unwilling to help freely, receivers can negotiate with the security staff when the package is to be picked up and how much should be charged. This need and possibility to communicate and negotiate with human beings, previously seen as troublesome, now shows its advantage. In comparison, the time standard and the amount of charge are now determined solely by the company.

Second, given that the Hive Box was previously free, some couriers are used to simply dropping packages in a nearby Hive Box to save time, especially when he or she cannot contact the receiver at the moment. Nevertheless, when the Hive Box is no longer free, the packages of receivers who do not intend to pay for the charge may be dropped in Hive Boxes without previous agreement or notification. This results in the occasional situation that receivers were forced to pay because of couriers’ carelessness or being pressed for time. Again, there is no one for receivers to negotiate with.

The heated controversies did not last for long, as both consumer associations and relevant government agencies expressed their opinion. On May 13, 2020, the most powerful semi-governmental consumer association in China, the China Consumer Association, expressed its opinion that “intelligent package storage services should be incorporated in the service scope of the property management of residential districts, and should be free within reasonable storage time. Even if it is beyond reasonable storage time, the charge should be set according to the pricing principles of public services rather than marketing standards.” Further, it called for residential districts to initiate “new infrastructure projects” to upgrade conventional storage boxes and mailboxes into intelligent storage boxes.[1] In response, on May 15, SF Express announced their adjustments to the charging policies. It specified that the free period would be extended to 18 hours, and that couriers would no longer be allowed to drop packages in Hive Boxes before getting the consent of customers.[2] Nevertheless, how such adjustments, especially regarding courier regulations, will be operated are still not clear.

Social Concerns over Privatization and Automation 

The Hive Box is a very simple move of automation pushed by a private company. On the surface, it brings nothing but convenience to major parties involved in express delivery. Nevertheless, it suffers from its own weakness. Eliminating the nature of public service, the operation of Hive Boxes is subject to the legal and ethical problems of whether it can charge and how it should charge. Substituting human services, it fails to provide the chance and space for users to negotiate.

The implementation and operation of automation technologies, as small and trivial as ones like the Hive Box, require a whole new process of negotiations between the ideas of private and public, money and responsibility, and human and machine. It turns out that automation and privatization are not straightforward – the case inspires us to rethink whether the complete, neat, and organized automation is truly more superior to conventional service models that involve the “messy” but negotiable human factors.


  1. People’s Daily. 2020. “Zhong Xiaoxie huiying Fengchao chaoshi shoufe: Heli baoguanqi nei buying dandu shoufei (China Consumer Association responded to Hive Box’s charging policy: Fees should not be charged within reasonable storage periods).” Accessed Oct 22, 2020.
  2. Zhao, Wenqi. 2020. “Fengchao daoqianle! (Hive Box apologized!).” Accessed Oct. 22, 2020.