How is China experiencing the coronavirus outbreak? Almost entirely online

February 12, 2020, 9:49 AM UTC

China announced on Sunday that citizens in major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen would go back to work Monday, so as to “strongly support and stabilize the overall economy,” according to China’s State Council.

It marked the end of an emergency 10-day extension of the Chinese New Year holiday aimed at stemming the transmission of the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, that has so far infected some 45,000 and killed more than 1,100

But even with that directive, some Chinese businesses like technology giants Tencent, Alibaba, Bytedance, and Meituan are not returning to operations as normal. Instead, they are asking their employees to log-on from home.

Mabel Zhang, who works for a product development company aiding startups in Shenzhen, says that she was given an additional work-from-home order on Monday. She is uncertain how long it will continue, but doesn’t anticipate any major challenges in her new work arrangement, since there’s no trouble carrying out her work tasks remotely.

Working from home “is just fine with me,” she said.

Zhang is one of the millions of white-collar Chinese workers who logged on from their kitchen tables or sofas as early worries about the coronavirus prompted the world’s largest-ever work from home experiment last week. Even outside of the outbreak epicenter of Wuhan, major cities and small villages have seemed like ghost towns.

A woman wearing protective facemask and goggles collects delivered items that were ordered online outside her residential compound in Hangzhou, some 175 kilometres (110 miles) southwest of Shanghai on February 5, 2020. - The world has a "window of opportunity" to halt the spread of a deadly new virus, global health experts said, as the number of people infected in China jumped to 24,000 and millions more were ordered to stay indoors. (Photo by NOEL CELIS / AFP) (Photo by NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman wearing protective face mask and goggles collects items that were ordered online outside her residential compound in Hangzhou, some 110 miles southwest of Shanghai, on Feb. 5, 2020.
NOEL CELIS—AFP via Getty Images

With internal travel links, public sites, and most shops shut down, several people in Chinese cities—from Shanghai to Beijing to Shenzhen—told Fortune they are only emerging from their homes to purchase necessities. So it’s not just professional tasks that are being done digitally. As the disease’s spread prompts lockdowns and chases people into isolation, residents of China are turning to the Internet to carry out all sorts of tasks, presenting opportunities for China’s burgeoning work from home industry, its booming online education industry, and the world’s largest mobile gaming market. Indeed, the outbreak, which feeds on physical contact, is largely being experienced online. 

Working remotely

The coronavirus is comparable to the SARS outbreak in China in 2002. But already the number of cases and deaths from the coronavirus have surpassed SARS’s grim totals. What’s more, the interceding 18 years has seen a transformation of China’s society. There were 60 million Internet users in China when SARS struck. Today that figure is close to 900 million. And China has emerged as a nation quick to adopt new technologies both on a consumer level—it has a nearly ubiquitous cashless payments system and relies on Weibo and WeChat for information sharing and messaging, respectively—and in public infrastructure, where it’s a global leader in rolling out 5G technology.

Chinese citizens are increasingly online, and the virus seems to be exacerbating the trend, though Brock Silvers, managing director of Adamas Asset Management in Hong Kong, warns that the transition to living online is, perhaps, not as seamless as it seems.

“China’s new economy companies are trying to capitalize on the public’s interest in avoiding mass social interactions,” he said. “(But) the idea that the internet can significantly ameliorate the economic wreckage of the coronavirus is being pushed both by those who seek to benefit and those who want to downplay risks and calm fears.”

End users however, didn’t have much choice in the matter. Early last week, when Chinese companies started encouraging employees to work from home, many of its smart office operating systems reported large surges in interest and traffic. According to Caixing, Huawei’s remote work platform Welink saw 50% more accounts created per day than usual. Other remote work platforms such as Alibaba’s Dingtalk and Tencent’s Wechat Work reported lags due to increases in use.

Even before the virus uptick, China’s remote-work software industry had been growing at a rapid pace, with the market’s collective valuation increasing from $5 billion in 2012 to nearly $25 billion in 2018.

Not all employees, however, seem pleased about the transition, and a number of reviewers have given remote working apps one star ratings for depriving them of extended holidays.

In one sarcastic post, a user gave Dingtalk one star out of five, writing, “I love working, Dingtalk is the best, long live Alibaba!” 

Logging into school

Students are likewise having to turn to online tools to continue their studies—whether they like it or not. In late January, China’s Ministry of Education announced an indefinite postponement of the university spring semester country-wide. At the same time, it required colleges to offer students online courses as an alternative to face-to-face instruction. The government slogan that emerged from the directive describes how universities, lower level schools, and students themselves are expected to proceed as the outbreak plays out: “Stop classes, but don’t stop studying.”

NANCHANG, Feb. 11, 2020 -- Gao Yingyan L, a student of No.4 Primary School in Wanli District, attends an online class at home in Nanchang City, east China's Jiangxi Province, Feb. 10, 2020. As schools across the country are required to postpone the opening of the spring semester, students in Jiangxi Province have been encouraged to study at home in various ways. (Photo by Peng Zhaozhi/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Peng Zhaozhi via Getty Images)
Gao Yingyan L, a student of No.4 Primary School in Wanli District, attends an online class at home in Nanchang City, east China’s Jiangxi Province, on Feb. 10, 2020. As schools across the country are required to postpone the opening of the spring semester, students have been encouraged to study at home.
Peng Zhaozhi—Xinhua via Getty

Li Chubing, a master’s student at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said that over the Chinese New Year break her university was promoting classes via an internal, online platform called Yuketang, or Rain Classroom. She said that thus far she had only seen optional classes and ones to help students through the outbreak, such as home workout sessions and courses about the global consequences of the outbreak. The university has said that its 35,000 students will be required to use the platform for the upcoming spring semester when it finally commences on Feb. 17. 

The shift to digital classes is likely to be welcomed by China’s thriving online education scene. Even before the outbreak, eight of the world’s 14 online education unicorns—those with valuations of over $1 billion—were located in China, according to Holon IQ. VIPKid, an online English teaching platform based in China, has not publicly reported user data since the beginning of the outbreak, but claims there has been a significant “influx” in interest.

Game on

But it’s not all work and study. Shi Jialong, a technology analyst for Nomura, wrote in a recent report that online gaming would “likely be the biggest beneficiary of the coronavirus-triggered disruption.” Shi argued that Chinese gamers would be far more active due to delays in college start dates and stay-at-home edicts.

Early numbers indicate that Shi was, in fact, correct. Tencent, the country’s largest gaming company, has reported that its flagship title Honor of Kings had up to 100 million daily active users during the recent holiday, surpassing the previous high of 70 million during past Chinese New Years. Stock of companies in China’s online gaming sector, such as Tencent and game developer Ourpalm, have also skyrocketed in recent weeks as investors recognize the likelihood of an outbreak boom. 

Dylan Li, an occasional gamer who lives in Shenzhen, said that since the outbreak of the virus, in which he has largely been stuck in his apartment, he has played Honor of Kings more than usual.

Unlike tens of millions of other players, Dylan Li has not been playing a game called Plague Inc, in which players try to infect the world with a disease outbreak, which the Shenzen-based Li deemed “awful.” His fellow gamers seem to disagree. As of Sunday, Plague Inc was the most downloaded paid app in China. 

For some, however, the online world of the coronavirus has become exhausting. Li Chubing, the Beijing master’s student, says she has deleted Taobao, China’s premier online shopping app, from her phone to stop from endlessly browsing for apartment furnishings. She’s limited her news intake since reports about the virus are “devastating” and because she’s having trouble determining what sources are trustworthy. And she’s trying to avoid social media platforms.

 What is she doing instead?

“I’ve started reading Albert Camus’ The Plague,” Li Chubing said, referring to the 1947 novel depicting an Algerian city descending into fear, confusion, and chaos after the outbreak of a novel disease epidemic. 

“It’s very relevant,” she said.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

Why China is still so susceptible to disease outbreaks
—Coronavirus risks universities’ reliance on Chinese students
—Stock scammers are using coronavirus to dupe investors, SEC warns
A new coronavirus red flag on the horizon—a stronger dollar
—WATCH: Coronavirus outbreak has disrupted global economy

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