How coronavirus is shifting consumer behavior and attitudes in China

Dispatches from Beijing & e-learning apps

It feels tone-deaf in our current world to write about anything other than the coronavirus, yet—if you’re like me—it can also be fatiguing to face the constant coverage. I’m not an expert on epidemiology or virology and I won’t go into recommendations. Instead, I’ll do what I have always done: offer a more tech-focused lens on what is happening in the world.

As many of you know, I’m originally from China and lived in Beijing until I was 6 years old. My extended family is scattered across Beijing and Hubei Province, and they experienced first-hand the aggressive measures that the country put in place to control the outbreak, and they’re now living through the gradual loosening of them.

I asked my family members in China how life has changed in the past 3 months, since they are, in effect, living in our future. My cousin is a middle school teacher in Beijing, and all of her classes have shifted to video conference. I’ve translated her thoughts here; her original responses in Chinese are also included.

My cousin’s reflections on how life has changed in China

What impact has the novel coronavirus had on people's behaviors and attitudes in China?

The biggest feeling is that we are more dependent on the internet for everything. Now that attending classes and shopping are done online, I feel that many internet industries have been catalyzed and will become more mature after the epidemic.

In society, more people are aware of the power of our government and country, and the sense of national cohesion is stronger. We feel that order was maintained in the most difficult of times. Everyone was willing to stay inside in order to contain the virus. People in China were very conscious of the overall situation and willing to do their part to control the epidemic, so it was managed well. We sacrificed a little, but gained a lot. It’s actually very moving.

For the economy, the data probably isn’t good. The government's free health care and treatment, as well as low consumer spending during this period, will likely put a lot of strain on the economy. We expect that there will be a major move to stimulate the economy and consumption after the epidemic.

What types of software products are people in China using more?

We mainly use cloud video like Zoom and Tencent Meeting for online classes and meetings, which may not be good for the eyes. A lot of mini-apps on WeChat are also very convenient: you can hand in homework and score homework in them.

Taobao is used for everyday shopping, and there are many other shopping platforms, such as food takeaway and supermarket delivery.

In your opinion, what measures did China implement in response to coronavirus that were more effective than other countries’ responses?

At the beginning, lots of infuriating things happened, but then netizens mobilized online against the lack of transparency around the situation. The government quickly got back on track.

The specific measures that I believe were effective were: not going outside and wearing a mask. There was essentially no one outside, and those who didn’t wear masks were reminded to do so. Every residential area’s entrances had thermal sensors. People with fevers were immediately isolated. Everyone reported their temperature to their employer every day in addition to people they came into contact with. Public announcements were also very prominent.

These kinds of measures may be challenging to put in place in democratic countries. But I think we all realized that the government implemented these measures on behalf of the public good. So we were willing to abide by the rules and sacrifice some freedom in the short term to enjoy freedom when things improve. Now, the domestic epidemic situation is essentially under control, and many patients are being discharged from hospitals each day. Most of the new cases of coronavirus are imported from outside China. We expect to be able to go outside when the weather gets warmer in spring.

What kinds of habits and behaviors formed during the quarantine do you think will persist afterward?

Before the epidemic, online shopping was already very well-developed and widely used. I expect more convenient things to stick around, like video conferencing. Before, not everyone wanted to use video conferencing; they felt like it was difficult to set-up or that the quality wasn’t as good as in-person meetings. But now everyone has become accustomed to it, so I expect us to shift more towards remote meetings, including on weekends.

Because video calls are on-demand, people have to be available all the time. We have now gone from 996 to 007. [Li’s note: “996” refers to the grind-it-out work culture prevalent in some Chinese companies, which involves employees working from 9am to 9pm, 6 days per week, i.e. 72 hours per week. “007” is my cousin’s half-joking extension of that idea, entailing working around-the-clock.]

I really feel like as remote work tools become more convenient, the more tired we become…

How are people in China feeling about the response to coronavirus in the US and other Western countries?

We believe that foreign media “watched the fire burning across the river” when China first started fighting the epidemic, and covered the topic with a mixture of doubt, contempt, and even derision. Western countries didn’t take the warning seriously when China sounded the alarm.

Instead of mobilizing their countries to combat the epidemic, they instead preferred to shirk responsibility or point fingers, calling it discriminatory names like the “Chinese virus” without regard to people’s safety. Britain’s herd immunity approach led to the Prime Minister becoming infected. European countries abandoned the treatment of the elderly; if this had happened in China, the Western media would be up in arms. Then, there’s all the reports calling into question China’s assistance in providing medical supplies, quality issues, etc. to shift the public’s attention.

Of course, Chinese domestic media may be biased.

E-Learning in the US vs. China

Having family with school-aged children in both the US and China has illustrated just how much further ahead the online learning ecosystem is in China. My siblings in the US (grades 6 & 12) are using a combination of Zoom and Google Classroom to attend classes and complete homework—but there are fewer consumer-friendly solutions that offer rich, interactive learning experiences with vetted, high-quality content.

In contrast, in China, K-12 remote education is a highly competitive category, with myriad well-funded learning apps that combine AI, video, audio, and asynchronous and synchronous formats. A cousin in Beijing who has a young daughter told me about using various online learning apps during the quarantine. These include Yuanfudao (screen below; literally “Ape Coaching”), which offers live courses and a homework help app; Xueersi, an after-school tutoring platform; and Study China, which—for better or worse—teaches the Party’s ideology and history and is currently ranked #85 on the Overall top app chart as of March 31. With coronavirus, it is now more apparent than ever that such online learning resources are needed in the US, as well.

Ape Coaching or Yuanfudao, a Beijing-based startup with over 400 million users, recently raised at a $7.8Bn valuation. Above, their homework help app instantly solves problems when users snap a photo.

Xueersi is an online learning platform for students ages 6 to 18, with over 6 million students from more than 200 cities in China. It aims to reduce the gap between online and offline learning, leveraging synchronous video, 1:1 tutors, facial recognition, and sound recognition. Above: 10-minute classes to broaden one’s knowledge, priced at $5 to $18, encompassing topics from literature to biology.

It’s not lost on me that I’ve talked to my family in China way more frequently during this pandemic than usual. A silver lining in this crisis has been that in a world with physical social distancing, there’s more emotional closeness than ever. While many interactions can’t be virtualized, feelings have always transcended physical reality. Now, more than perhaps ever before, countless invisible, powerful threads of care and concern criss-cross the globe and connect us to each other.

The next few weeks will undoubtedly be difficult in this country. I hope that we can work through this crisis and emerge with similar sentiments as my cousin in Beijing: with greater empathy for our fellow citizens, hopeful about the future, and thankful that we endured some personal sacrifices in the short-term to ensure our communities’ health and safety.

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一开始也有很多让人气愤的事情发生,但网上形成了网民监督的风气,大家批判转发不透明的情况,政府补救措施也很给力, 没多久就回归正轨了。

我看到的具体措施就是: 不出门以及戴口罩非常有用, 那会儿最严重的时候街上基本 没有人,不戴口罩的都会被提醒,每个社区门口都有量体温的,只要有人发热立刻隔离。 每个人每天都要向单位上报自己的体温状况,还有人员接触情况。宣传也很到位。 这些在民主国家应该是不能实行的吧。但我觉得我们是牺相信政府是为人民考虑的。所以我们愿意听政府的话,在情况好转后再去享受自由。 目前国内的疫情基本已经控制了,每天都有大量的治愈出院人数。新增病例大部分都是外来入境。春暖花幵的时候应该就可以出去啦。