2020 did not start well. Covid-19 has created upheaval around the world and, while it started in China, the outbreak seems almost under control in the Middle Kingdom. Most of TechNode is back in China. As restrictions loosen, we’re all asking when will things go back to normal? What does the new normal look like? What happens in China may offer a rough timeline for the rest of the world, as well.

In order to answer that question, we’re working on compiling a list of indicators, including search queries, store openings, travel, and manufacturing. We’re planning to launch our Normalcy Tracker next week, but, for members, here’s a preview of what we’re seeing.

Bottom line: Everyone wants to go back to the “China dream” as soon as possible, including the government. Covid-19, provincial lockdowns, aggressive community isolation, and home quarantines have left their mark. The government, however, is close to declaring victory: travel restrictions for Hubei province have been lifted (except Wuhan), Beijing is telling its residents they can stop wearing masks, and many provinces are telling kids they can come back to school. However, it will be until at least June before the consumer market starts looking like it did pre-Covid. For industries that rely on global trade, the new normal hangover could be even longer: If the rest of the world is like China, then we’re looking at September this year before the global demand for China’s exports picks up again.

A brief timeline:

  • Jan 21: Zhong Nanshan, known for discovering the SARS virus, confirms person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-19.
  • Jan 23: Hubei, including Wuhan, goes into lockdown.
  • Feb 3: Extended Chinese New Year ends. China’s workforce begins remote work.
  • Feb 15: Hangzhou is the first city to end lockdown, with help from QR codes
  • Feb 15: Beijing announces mandatory 14-day at-home-quarantine for anyone returning to the city from inside China.
  • Feb 24: Seven provinces lower their emergency level.
  • Feb 26: Beijing announces all passengers arriving to the city from abroad must also undergo 14-day at-home-quarantine.
  • Mar 3: Interprovincial travel restored in Yangzi River Delta as Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui sign a regional health Schengen-type deal.
  • Mar 26: China announces that foreign nationals will no longer be allowed to enter the country, except in rare circumstances.
  • Mar 26: The same day, China also announces a severe limitation on inbound and outbound flights. 

Searching for normalcy: China wants to know when they can go back to work and school:

  • In a Feb. 18 report, Baidu said that “return to work”-related search queries increased eight-fold month on month, while those related to Covid-19 had started to decline.
  • In terms of industries, online education saw the greatest increases in searches on Baidu, ballooning nearly 250% compared to January as Chinese people looked to get their children’s education back on track while the effects of the outbreak subsided.

Travel coming back—within provinces: Tomb-sweeping day, a national three-day holiday, is right around the corner. Data from travel platforms suggests China is ready to travel again:

  • Fliggy, Alibaba’s travel booking app, shows railway and attraction ticket purchases for the week ending March 23 doubled from the week before.
  • As of March 17, tickets to nearly 1,500 popular tourist areas could be bought online, and 40% of the country’s top tourist spots had reopened.
  • Around 80% of hotels have reopened in most provinces, according to online travel site Trip.com. The hotel reopening rate in eastern Anhui and Zhejiang provinces, southern Guangxi region as well as central Hunan and northern Shanxi provinces reached 95%.
  • Qunar said that user searches for the upcoming May 1 holiday had increased by nearly 80% in a week. 
  • One big caveat: Most of the uptick in bookings are for travel within the buyers’ province. 
  • And: China’s tourism revenue is expected to drop by RMB 1.18 trillion (around $168 billion) in 2020, according to the China Tourism Academy. 

Spring shoots for retail: Major retailers, including Apple and Xiaomi, are coming back to life:

  • Apple has reopened all of its 42 stores in China after they were shut in early February after China imposed measures to stop the spread of Covid-19. The company has gradually been reopening its stores since mid-February. 
  • Xiaomi said on Thursday last week that it had reopened 1,800 stores across the country and 80% of its suppliers had resumed work. The company said that it plans to maintain a steady product release pace. 
  • Ikea has also opened all of its stores except one, in Wuhan. The company has a total of 30 standard-format stores, two experience stores, and three LIVAT shopping centers in China. 

Factories are revved up, but who’s buying? Factory owners are keen to get production lines back up:

  • 90% of firms in Guangdong  province had resumed operations as of March 2.
  • In total, 209 companies that are major suppliers to Huawei, 21 suppliers to ZTE, 167 suppliers to Mida, and 343 suppliers for GAC Group, have been given the go ahead to recruit workers.
  • China’s second-biggest automaker, Dongfeng Motor, resumed limited operations in Wuhan on March 11.
  • However: Overseas orders are taking a big hit as Covid-19 chews through trading partners.
  • Good Will Watch Case Manufacturing, a supplier to Fossil, has said they are putting their workers (over 600) on leave for at least three months.

A new normal? Tech companies, workers, parents, and regular people all want to get back to normal, but that will look quite different from just a few months ago. 

  • Checkpoints at residential communities, consumer-facing businesses, and office buildings are still in effect.
  • Offices are still far from full (with some even banning foreigners from entering).
  • Cinemas and other performance halls are still closed despite bars, restaurants, and cafes re-opening.
  • Tencent is cooperating with provincial CDC offices to launch a health QR code system for students returning to school. Under this system, each school can stick a passcode at its entrance which parents can then scan for unimpeded access.
  • Alibaba’s fintech affiliate Alipay said on Wednesday that all cities in eastern Zhejiang, southwestern Sichuan, and southern Hainan provinces have adopted its health code system. The system is currently going national after being adopted in 200 cities.

Watch this space! This was just a preview of what we’re tracking. We’ll have the full new normal dashboard up on the site soon.

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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...