It’s hard to overestimate how much Covid-19 has changed life in China over the past few weeks. In a country that rarely leaves the office, most of the population has been on remote work for three weeks and counting. The question now is what will go back to normal in a few weeks or months, and what will be the lasting effects.

As discussed on the China Tech Investor and China Tech Talk podcasts, and explored extensively by our reporters, the outbreak is creating an immediate impact on many of the products and services China has taken for granted. Understanding what is happening now is the key to figuring out what China will look like once this is all over.

Bottom line: SARS-CoV-2 (the virus) and Covid-19 (the disease the virus causes) show no signs of going away any time soon. It could be until June for things to go back to normal, and even then, we’re still not sure what the new normal will look like. 

That being said, take the “top 10 ways China is changing” articles floating around LinkedIn with a generous pinch of salt. Ingrained work and educational culture don’t change so easily. Yes, remote work and online education will automatically get more users from this crisis, but don’t expect this to be the same turning point for online services as 2003 was for e-commerce.

The remote crunch: China officially resumed work on Feb. 3, but most offices remain closed and are relying on remote work tools. Dingtalk, Wechat Work, and Bytedance’s Feishu (also known as Lark) were some of the most used apps. DingTalk rocketed to the top of the China iOS app store, with Wechat Work and Tencent Meetings coming in at a close second and third. From Jan. 30 to Feb. 5, downloads of Dingtalk increased by five times while downloads for WeChat Work increased four times. On Feb. 3, Dingtalk announced on Weibo that they had served over 10 million companies and more than 200 million employees. However, in the same announcement, they also apologized to users for usability issues related to overloaded servers. One week later, we’ve heard anecdotal reports of similar issues with both Dingtalk and Wechat Work.

Back to school? As soon as the seriousness of Covid-19 became clear, China’s education authorities announced that in-person classes would be cancelled. Universities are expected to resume offline classes on May 1, while different cities have announced different schedules for primary and secondary education, some as early as March and others as late as April. Even before the extended Spring Festival was over, students were receiving new homework assignments. Kuaishou, Youku, VIPKid, New Oriental, and even Dingtalk are jumping to provide free services for students, teachers, and schools.

Misfortune is a blessing in disguise: Companies across China are making their best efforts to help during what Xi Jinping has called a “people’s war.” While it would be extremely cynical to doubt their altruistic intentions, it would also be naive to ignore the opportunities many are trying to capitalize on. Indeed, making paid services temporarily free is a classic sales tactic to drive user acquisition. In their recent earnings call, Alibaba highlighted “explosive” growth in Dingtalk user growth. In the same call, Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang said that “over 150 million daily health check-ins have been recorded on DingTalk.”

In a Feb. 10 announcement, Wechat Work said their server load had increased by 10 times (Wechat did not provide specific user numbers). They have made large meetings free and have rolled out new features including group live streams, health reports for both businesses and schools, and online medical consultations.

Bytedance did not provide any data but said they had made many paid Feishu functions free, including an OKR tool, a health check tool, as well as other remote work functions.

This is not 2003: Covid-19’s implications for China tech are not the same as they were for SARS. The SARS epidemic was definitely a turning point for the internet in China. Not only did it validate the market for things like texting, but also increased the need for broadband internet and convinced users that shopping online could be trusted. 

In 2020, almost everyone who can get online already is. Online services unthinkable in 2003 have been validated and are quickly reaching maturity. The key for many online businesses during this time is user acquisition, not proving a model. The main challenge after the crisis will be user retention. Already Dingtalk and other education apps are seeing 1 star reviews from students in an attempt to get them removed from app stores. Employees forced to use enterprise apps were already complaining about the level of managerial intrusion into daily work long before Covid-19.

For now, businesses have no choice but to conduct their work online. Parents must allow their children to learn remotely. 

But many businesses are already pushing for their employees to come back into the office, both for operational reasons and as a sign of confidence and perseverance. Given the status of the teacher-student relationship in Chinese culture, it is hard to imagine parents forgoing face-to-face interaction for continued online learning.

Given the cabin fever many are experiencing, I actually expect a surge in demand for offline activities in the wake of the crisis. People want to get out of the house and will most likely take any excuse to do so once things start looking up.

John Artman

John Artman is the Editor in Chief for TechNode, the leading English information source for news and insight into China’s tech and startups, and co-host of the China Tech Talk podcast, a regular discussion...

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