In Shiyan, Hubei, Jiang Xiaosa wants to buy a tablecloth off e-commerce platform Taobao. But no deliveries are coming to Shiyan, so she’s waiting to place the order. Normally, Jiang, who owns a baijiu shop in Hebei province, would have left Hubei weeks ago. Instead, she’s living a low tech life while waiting for the quarantine to end.

Deliveries still make their way into Wuhan, the first city that went into quarantine following the Covid-19 outbreak. But Shiyan is a tier three city 600 kilometers from Wuhan.

The digital economy was one of the first things to go when quarantine started.

The virus has dealt a blow to e-commerce and food deliveries, but consumers in tier one cities still depend on them to avoid now-risky supermarket trips. In Beijing, fresh produce platforms like Alibaba’s Hema saw a surge in demand. In Shanghai, local platform Dingdong feeds families. Those that order takeout on apps like Ele.me must wait longer and pick up deliveries left outside, notified by a call from the delivery man once he’d already left.  

That’s not what getting food looks like in third-tier Hubei. While e-commerce companies may be helping to deliver supplies in the background, people are living like their interfaces, the likes of Taobao and Ele.me don’t exist. In Shiyan and neighboring Xiangyang, there have been no parcels since the quarantine began, and food delivery is close to non-existent. The low tech era is back.

Low tech food

Before the virus emerged, residents preferred brick-and-mortar for groceries. People in Shiyan can usually walk downstairs to a local store, usually at the foot of the residential compound.

This lasted until the local government asked people to stop going outdoors on Feb. 2. Loudspeakers started broadcasting rhymes discouraging shopping trips: “If you have one grain of rice, don’t go out in the crowds; if you have one stalk of spring onion, don’t rush to the market.”

The local store moved some of its produce into the apartment compound. Jiang can now buy tangerines without venturing onto the street. 

Low tech fresh food networks have sprung up. The local neighborhood Party committee is now the equivalent of a Hema delivery man. Jiang can scan a QR code, join a WeChat group, and post a list of what she’s run out of. She says that the neighborhood committee also collects her rubbish and helps pay her gas bill.

A resident in Jiang’s building had symptoms similar to the coronavirus and no one from that building was allowed to leave the compound for a week. Jiang is considering joining the Party committee as a volunteer just so she can get outside more often.

In the neighboring city of Xiangyang, Zhong Shaoxiong manages on his own. Unlike Shiyan, his neighborhood committee does not deliver groceries. They have barred his family from leaving their residential compound since Feb. 1, when cases were discovered within.

“There’s a nearby supermarket; we have their WeChat, we tell them what to buy, they send groceries to the gate of the compound,” said Zhong. He pays at the gate, which separates the local supermarket’s staff and himself. 

Cooked food delivery is totally gone in Shiyan. It’s almost gone in Xiangyang. There was one shop open on Ele.me in the whole city when Zhong checked at 7 p.m on Feb. 11. The choices aren’t bad. Among them are prawn fried noodles, fried rice with Laoganma chili sauce, and Sprite to wash it down. Before the virus, Zhong said, “food delivery was everywhere in Xiangyang.”

E-commerce companies operate in the background. Pinduoduo, for instance, has told Xinhua (in Chinese) that it has shipped agricultural produce to Xiangyang. Fu Zheng, Pinduoduo’s team head for epidemic control, said in the interview that the company has set up new procurement and purchasing channels to circumvent road closures and disruption of normal logistics and that it bought over 100 tons of fresh vegetables and fruit and delivered them to 16 hospitals across seven cities in Hubei.

Nothing comes in, nothing goes out

Quarantine has thrown Shiyan’s residents into a pre-Taobao world. Local governments have implemented strict and varying rules on what is allowed in and out. Nothing comes in unless it’s of the turnip or mask variety, and these go straight to supermarkets or pharmacies. Individual deliveries don’t get past the roadblocks.

TechNode writer Wei Sheng posted masks to his parents who live in a village near Huanggang city on Jan. 26. His parents were waiting to collect the parcel from the nearest town, Gaoqiaozhen. Three weeks later, they are yet to arrive.  “I’ve given up,” he said.

People are getting by without Taobao, but they miss it. Local residents in Shiyan said that they were among its earliest adopters. After placing an order, the seller would call to confirm. The buyer would traipse to the local post office and send money directly to the seller’s account. It could be a ten-day wait before the parcel arrived at the local postal point. “The first people to use it were brave,” said Jiang. The most popular purchases, said her daughter, Yaning, were nicer clothes and shoes then unavailable in the city’s shops.

Jiang can wait on the tablecloth. But there are other problems. During her time in quarantine, her washing machine has broken. She ordered a new one off JD.com.

Not only are no parcels coming in—none are going out. She wanted to post the key to her shop to a colleague back in Hebei. No one would come to pick it up. 

Cut off from the digital economy, Jiang isn’t worried about not being able to sit down to home-cooked meals—the Party committee guarantees that. What she doesn’t know is when she can go back to work and use her washer.

Lavender Au

Lavender covers regulation and its effects on people. She previously worked in a policy advisory analyzing China’s internal governance for foreign governments and multinationals. A History graduate from...

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