Inside China’s reopening: A startup operations manager in Hangzhou sees automation accelerating

This is part of a series on China’s emergence from coronavirus lockdowns, featuring seven people who are living it.

E-commerce giant Alibaba was the first company in China to develop the health code apps that have become ubiquitous across China as a means for monitoring local coronavirus infections. But in the company’s hometown, Hangzhou100 miles southwest of Shanghai, in Zhejiang provincethe colored QR codes are already more a formality than a necessity.

“Sometimes when you enter a compound you need to show your code to the security guard, but they never check it seriously,” said Peter Zhou, a 25-year-old Cornell graduate from Shanghai who’s working for a tech startup near Alibaba’s Hangzhou campus. “We just wave the QR code at the guard, and so long as it’s green, it’s okay. I know some people who even just show a screenshot of the code, because it’s easier than opening the health app,” Zhou said.

Yet technology of another kind has taken a firmer hold. Zhou has noticed that in the city of 10 million sometimes dubbed China’s Silicon Valley, manual labor—carried out by virus-susceptible humans—continues to be automated, but now at a quicker clip.

Tourists visit the West Lake park in Hangzhou on Sunday, April 5, 2020.
Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Hangzhou was one of the first cities that Chinese President Xi Jinping visited on his coronavirus victory tour, designed to inspire confidence in a shuddering economy. Xi was photographed in Hangzhou wetlands, walking with his entourage, none of them wearing face masks.

Zhejiang has had 1,268 reported cases of COVID-19 and one death. Zhou said that daily life in Hangzhou, the provincial capital, has already returned to normal, apart from the occasional flash of a health code and the protective face masks that are now in vogue among residents. The city has even resumed preparations to host the 2022 Asian Games—a continental, quadrennial sports event last convened in Jakarta, Indonesia.

In early April, Hangzhou’s local government unveiled the official games mascots but did so through an online launch, rather than a public ceremony. Workers building the city’s new venues for the games aren’t able to remain remote, however. Construction recommenced in March, with laborers undergoing daily “temperature and health” checks before entering the site.

On Feb. 11, a lone cyclist in Hangzhou passes lanterns hung to celebrate the New Year.
Qilai Shen—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Zhou uses one of the city’s shared bikes to cycle 15 minutes to work each morning, alongside a highway clogged with traffic jams. A month ago, when most of the city’s tech sector was working from home, the road was clear. At the height of Hangzhou’s lockdown, public transport was suspended in the city, while underground trains ran at 30-minute intervals. In some districts, households could send only one person outside once every two days.

Now restaurants are filling up again—although some appear to be shuttered for good—and are more relaxed about hygiene than before. In March customers had to fill out a health declaration form and submit to a temperature scan before eating. Zhou says that has stopped now.

The one trend that has caught Zhou’s attention is an acceleration of automation that was happening pre-pandemic. Fast-food restaurants, for instance, long ago installed touch screens that customers can use to order food. Alibaba even partnered with KFC in 2017 to equip screens with face-recognition payment tech.

Zhou says now at McDonald’s, ordering through a screen is the only option. A bottle of hand sanitizer waits nearby to purge whatever germs the screen transmits to customers’ fingertips. It seems safer than spluttering an order toward the staff and their open kitchen.

“Ordering through the screen prevents unnecessary and risky interaction,” Zhou said. “If you can take orders without people, then why not?”

Read the other stories in this Fortune series:

—A Shenzhen entrepreneur gets a 6 a.m. throat swab and mandatory quarantine
—A Wuhan college student still avoids restaurants and public transit
—A tech founder in Chengdu returns to a changed workplace
—A Shanghai consultant eschews a contact-tracing app
—A Beijing tech worker needs a quarantine certificate to dine out
—A Harbin university professor confronts a second lockdown

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