Mark Tanner
Mark Tanner
4 March 2020 0 Comments

There are signs that the long, cold coronavirus winter may be subsiding as the green shoots of spring appear, as many Chinese commentators have so eloquently put it. Since 20 February, the number of railway passenger trips has picked up with an average daily increase of 60,000 as Chinese return to work. Normal services have returned to hospitals in cities like Shanghai, and even Wuhan reportedly has a surplus of hospital beds. China’s top container ports have unclogged their backlog as virus curbs ease. An Alibaba research unit survey of nearly 24,000 Chinese micro, small and medium enterprise respondents found 66% expressed optimism about business opportunities for the remainder of the year.

It seems the outbreak of the novel coronavirus may have peaked in late February, and is expected to level off in late April. Even state media has changed its tack on how they are covering the outbreak – there is less news of infections and more about how people are spending the time cooped up in their homes.

Cinemas are opening again, although movie-goers are only able to sit in non-adjacent seats in every other row. Similarly, restaurants are open, but with some steps before sitting more separation between diners – as this video will attest. As of last Thursday, 85% of Starbucks’ 4,292 China locations were operating again. Commuters are back in their cars, seeing Shanghai roads “almost as busy as they were before the coronavirus outbreak.” However, people have been slower to get back to public transport with 63% less Shanghai metro users than normal. Those riding the subway have seen slower queues as passengers’ temperatures are scanned, all standing a metre apart – the “distance of warmth and care” as Beijing has labelled it.  Chinese are even starting to consider travelling again, with a 138% increase in flight searches on Elong over early-April’s Qingming Festival holiday period.

Yet as things appear to be showing more promise in China, ironically, there may even be a greater impact in the rest of the world with 73 countries and territories now having cases as of yesterday. For the past week, there have been more new infections outside of China than in it. Some of the impacts we’ve seen in China, are starting to be felt everywhere, with supermarkets cleared of supplies, Paris’s Louvre museum being shut, and announcements such as Shopify cancelling its early-May annual conference in Toronto, Nestle halting international travel for staff and Twitter not participating in the legendary festival SXSW, to name a few.

Few governments globally have the levers that the Chinese Government has to minimise the spread of the virus. In addition, the widespread adoption of smartphone apps and different privacy regulations has seen a lot of data about people – such as their travel history and the people they have been in close contact with, coupled with their self-declared health status, feeding some advanced AI algorithms. The output has led to an app that calculates an individual’s risk levels – red, orange or green – where people with red levels are unable to enter public places such as subway stations, restaurants or shopping malls for at least 14 days.

The red-orange-green app is only one piece of China’s tech story though. Although the teeming crowds of China do nothing to halt the spread, the country’s tech infrastructure allows people to consume with less fear of contracting the virus. With ecommerce penetration greater than 20%, consumers can conveniently buy everything they need and have it delivered quickly without leaving the safe confines of their apartment. If they do venture out, there is barely a single location in China where you have to pay with cash or by touching a payment terminal, rather mobile payments or increasingly facial payments keep it cleaner. Apps for everything from reserving a spot in the queue to food delivery don’t just make life more convenient in China, but also make it safer during these unique times.

The impact of the virus on the world won’t be good for China, or anyone. But China is less reliant on exports than they’ve ever been and Beijing will be doing everything it can to stoke the domestic economy, particularly through consumer spending. So in the medium term Chinese consumers may actually be more resilient than their peers in other markets. Click/tap here to see this week’s most important China market and marketing news.