Going digital amid epidemic

By Zhang Jiaqi, He Shan & Qin Qi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, April 1, 2020
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Zhao Liang has been ordering groceries from the WuMart supermarket for the last two months. He had heard about its delivery service through the Dmall app, but the 20-something had never needed to use it.

A consumer scans an Alipay QR code to pay for the order at a self-service restaurant in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. [Photo/Xinhua]

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, however, the ability to get all his daily necessities online without going out and risking human-to-human contact has been a lifesaver. Deciding to cook for himself while isolating at home, Zhao would order food materials in the morning. A deliveryman would drop his groceries at the entrance of his residential community and call him up, and Zhao would pick them up at a shelf set up by community workers at the gate.

Meanwhile, Zhao's company has been using DingTalk, a communication and collaboration software, to enable employees throughout the company to work remotely.

Even though he has been staying at home throughout a 14-day home observation period, DingTalk has allowed Zhao to convene and participate in teleconferences of different teams, place orders, assign tasks, and receive assignments. The "all-in-one mobile workplace" also helped him to set deadlines and reminders, go through administrative procedures, and write and submit work reports. Zhao even clocked in and out for his normal workday hours through the app.

Zhao's life is an epitome of millions of Chinese young people who are increasingly adapting to a digitalized lifestyle amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Solutions to digital transformation

With the outbreak keeping people at home, many tech companies have come up with ways to get their business done online.

Alipay, the online payment arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba, announced on March 10 a three-year plan to further open its platform to support the digital transformation of 40 million service providers across China.

The move is marking Alipay's transformation from a financial service platform to one that provides a comprehensive digital lifestyle.

"We want to build the new infrastructure of a digitalized service industry by upgrading Alipay into a digital lifestyle platform," said Simon Hu, CEO of Alibaba's financial affiliate Ant Financial.

Alipay also introduced an incentive program that encourages developers to create mini programs that can help users cope with the impact, while minimizing the need for physical contact with service providers.

The program attracted more than 1,200 developers within a week. They have created 181 mini programs on the Alipay app that enable contactless services across China, including grocery deliveries, legal and medical consultation, logistics, and public services.

Beijing-based grocery startup Meicai, which connects farmers with consumers and restaurants, launched a mini program to make its delivery services available to Alipay users amid the outbreak. In one week, it attracted more than 800,000 new users, and orders poured in from 80 cities across China.

"During the outbreak, the offline contact between businesses and consumers are interrupted, while online channels unleash great potential. Thus, consumers depend more on online services," said Pan Helin, executive director of the Digital Economy Research Institute of Zhongnan University of Economics and Law.

Leading to long-term shifts

Some economists said they see long-term changes taking hold.

Pan said the huge demand for online services will be not likely to go away after the outbreak.

"The huge potential suggests that digital economy is supported by great market demand, so the boom is very unlikely to disappear even after the outbreak," he said.

Pan said the benefits of the digital economy go much further beyond offering better services and a more convenient life to individuals. For businesses, it expands sales channels and increases their profits; and for society, it creates job opportunities and boosts the overall economy.

The rush to go online is also more than moving traditional services onto digital platforms, Pan said. For service providers, it means leveraging a wide variety of digital tools available to reach more customers, offering more personalized services, and lowering costs at the same time.

For millions of young professionals in China like Zhao Liang, the digital economy has already become ubiquitous in their daily lives since the outbreak, and transforming more than just their work and meal routines.

In Zhao's case, he has been attending a livestreamed language courses offered by a university free-of-charge on DingTalk in the evenings. The karaoke enthusiast said he could now stumble over Korean lyrics.

He was also able to see a doctor without going out of his house. After making his first online medical consultation, Zhao had to wait just one and a half hours before speaking with a doctor from a first-class hospital in Beijing.

"The outbreak prompts me to try out many different types of online services, which made my life simpler in many ways," he said.

Zhao recalled the last time similar self-isolations occurred during the SARS outbreak in 2003. He said most of the apps on the internet that the Chinese people know so well today did not exist at that time. Now, the world has gone from 2G to 4G and 5G, and from web portals to smartphones.

"Now that the outbreak breaks us away with the convention and brings an online lifestyle for many including me, it may bring us closer to an online future," he said.

Zhao said he does not consider himself a homebody, but he could get used to his new living situation. "Why say no to an easier life?"

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