Digital China Overview

How Covid changed the internet

Digital China Overview
How Covid changed the internet

Updated 29-1-2021

The future of e-commerce is in China. If that was ever true before the pandemic, it certainly is now. Nowhere else has a user base so large, and nowhere else does digital penetrate more deeply into daily life. How did this happen and what could a post-Covid world look like?
By John Millichap.

It's not until Singles Day that one gets a true sense of the scale of China’s digital boom. The heaps of packages being sorted by the roadside and the stream of delivery couriers whizzing by express an energy and activity that seems to add up to something more than mere retail.

So named for the collection of lonely '1's in the date 11 November (11-11), Singles Day was launched in the late 1990s by a group of students as a celebration of bachelorhood and an excuse to party. By the mid-2000s, online retailers had picked up on it as a good chance to reach the nation’s middle-class millennials, enticing them with one-day-only discounts and special offers.

By 2012 – the year Alibaba trademarked the name “双十一" (shuang shiyi), meaning 'double 11' – Singles Day had transformed into a 24-hour digital retail frenzy unlike anything else. That year it achieved sales of more than US$3 billion, against US$1.25 million on Cyber Monday in the United States, making it the world’s most valuable online sales day.

By 2018, its total sales value was more than ten times that figure, topping US$30 billion.

Why did this happen in China? Why not in another rich, populous, technophile nation such as the US? An answer is suggested by Jack Ma:

'In the US, e-commerce is just online shopping. In China, e-commerce is a lifestyle.'

Digital Behemoth

China’s embrace of the internet is engineered as much as it is organic. State support keeps the price of devices and connectivity down, ensures new infrastructure is swiftly rolled out, and shields local companies from foreign competition.

Yet it is sheer scale that provides critical mass. Despite internet penetration of around 60%, compared to around 78% in the US, China has three times as many internet users. The contrast is even more eye catching when it comes to mobile payment, where China has more regular users than the entire US population.

One consequence of this is a crop of giant domestic tech companies, which have thrived on a vast, captive market. The largest of these are collectively known as BAT: Baidu, a search engine; Alibaba, originally an e-commerce platform, and Tencent, a gaming and messaging company.

The latter is significant for developing WeChat, a social media platform which has done much to change the way China's urban middle class lives, works and consumes.

Super apps represent a profound lifestyle change that has important knock-on effects for industries from retail and communications to banking and entertainment.

Here, it is worth noting a distinct characteristic of the internet in China. In the West different companies specialise in different services – Facebook for social media, WhatsApp for messaging, Amazon for ecommerce. In China, by contrast, the aim of platforms such as WeChat is to create a ecosystem that its users need never leave – a so-called "omnichannel". All that’s needed for it to function is a valid ID, a bank account and a smart phone.

The Wechat digital wallet allows users to pay bills, order goods and services, transfer money, play games and pay in stores if the stores have a WeChat payment option, which most of them do.

WeChat is not the only such omnichannel. Weibo is China's second-largest social media platform and hosts a similar constellation of apps based on the Alipay digital wallet. It is WeChat, however, that continues to reign as the nation's most popular social platform. Today, it is famously known as 'the app for everything.'

Such super apps represent a profound lifestyle change that has important knock-on effects for industries from retail and communications to banking and entertainment. That it has happened in the way it has is the result of a series of interrelated factors that have in common the relative newness of disposable incomes, the dominance of the smart phone for personal internet use, and a determination on the part of the state to develop domestic social ecosystems that are wholly independent of foreign technology.

China applies strict conditions to international credit cards. As a result, uptake has been low, both among consumers and merchants. WeChat Pay and other digital wallets neatly fill the convenience gap while sidestepping cultural attitudes to debt. Contactless payment via a digital wallet using a mobile phone is now as widespread on the high street as it is online. Even the local street hawker will display a laminated QR code for customers to scan and pay.

Online payment technology has been around in China since 2004 when Alibaba introduced Alipay. As a result, the idea of online payment is well familiar, especially to Chinese millennials who grew up with it and up until the Covid-19 outbreak were its biggest users. Lockdown, meanwhile, has obliged a whole new audience to adapt to the technology. Official endorsement has also encouraged uptake. And while data protection has not received as wide discussion as in the West, public outcry following a spate of online scams has caused the authorities to accelerate the introduction of data laws modelled on Europe’s GDPR.

The huge numbers at stake are a powerful motivator, not only for tech companies and app developers, but also retailers, who have leapt to adopt the technology. Competition is

is extremely fierce and the life cycle of an app is typically shorter than in the West. The result is ever-changing and ever-expanding ecosystems. The government, keen that China should be seen as a world leader in tech, is quick to smooth bureaucracy and rollout updated infrastructure.

China’s digital landscape is remarkably homogeneous. Facebook might claim twice as many monthly active users, but the overwhelming majority of WeChat’s one billion subscribers speak the same language, live in the same time zone, celebrate the same festivals and share many of the same life experiences and cultural references. Moreover, WeChat, Weibo and the rest are Chinese social media companies, which many subscribers use on a Chinese-branded mobile device, which has been made in China. In many ways the internet can feel like a national project.

An overview of the digital economy in China

Δ China's online audience is large, well-connected and relatively high-spending – and becoming more so. Photograph: Jonathan Browning

The Future is Retail

For all kinds of consumer brand, these characteristics present clear opportunities. On the one hand the potential audience is enormous, highly connected and relatively high spending – and becoming more so at a rate that outstrips by a clear margin the growth of online shopping in the West.

Post-outbreak, e-commerce makes up almost a quarter of China's total consumer retail sales, compared to around 16.5% in the US and a similar figure in Europe. Only the UK has a similar appetite for online shopping, with e-commerce making up around 30% of the country's total retail sales in 2020. It is unclear whether this trend will continue once lockdown measures are relaxed and shoppers return to the high street.

China's digital citizens also spend longer online. Before Covid lockdown, the average Chinese Gen-Z spent around six hours per day chatting, browsing content, watching and shopping. That increased to just over seven hours per day during Covid lockdown, which began in China in January 2020.

Some sense of what all this means in practice can be seen by the results from this year's Single's Day festival.

More than 250,000 brands took part in the 2020 event, yielding a record-smashing sales total of CNY498 billion (US$74 billion), according to Alibaba. Competing platforms such as also offered heavy discounts, reporting sales of CNY271.5 billion (US$41 billion), up from last year's 204.4 billion (US$30.9 billion).

This year, for the first time, the festival was split into two discount shopping windows, from 1-3 November and 11 November, thereby transforming a 24-hour bargain sprint into an 11-day promotional marathon.

The change was intended to ease pressure on mail and courier services and give consumers more chance to browse bargains from the vastly increased number of brands and products on offer. These ranged from sacks of sweet potatoes to a Cartier necklace priced at CNY190 million (US$28.3 million). Alibaba’s logistics arm, Cainiao, chartered some 700 flights to meet demand.

Although not the only such online sales festival, Singles Day is generally seen as a reliable bellwether of the wider Chinese economy. With the Covid outbreak largely contained and daily life back to something more like normal, such results highlight a picture of the Chinese economy returning to growth. Ironically, it could even be convincingly argued that it is because of Covid lockdown that e-commerce in the country has performed so well.

The Covid Effect

As in many places around the world, China's stay-at-home economy has accelerated many digital trends that were already present – spreading the use of online tools and services to more of the population, and pushing parts of the economy traditionally known for in-person interaction to adopt digital.

Nowhere have these changes been more apparent than in the market for groceries. According to a survey conducted in March 2020 by McKinsey, the overall frequency of online grocery purchases in China increased by more than 70% during lockdown, with the greatest shifts taking place in third and fourth-tier cities. This increase also included more shoppers aged 30 and older, whose share of e-commerce as a whole grew by more than 11% from January to February 2020.

The pressure to adapt has been widely felt. With showrooms standing empty and sales plummeting more than 90% in February 2020, dozens of domestic and international auto brands, including Audi, BMW and Tesla, launched streaming campaigns to capture the attention of homebound audiences. Streams have ranged from glitzy online variety shows and live celebrity test drives, to owner testimonials and maintenance tips, and even cookery lessons and makeup demos.

Elsewhere, with in-person meetings out of bounds from January, April and May saw a surge in the number of live-streaming property sales as developers and agencies scrambled to avert a sales meltdown. Among these were some of the country’s biggest builders, such as Country Garden Holdings, which teamed up with Douyin – the China version of TikTok – to sell 10,000 new apartments in 60 cities during a two-hour live-stream variety show featuring celebrities and pop stars.

The latter two examples underline the fact that it is the not only the volume and frequency of online shopping that has changed, but also the manner in which people buy.

The past year saw live-streaming emerge as a key online selling technique across virtually all sectors, from high-end international luxury brands to independent farmers setting up as sole traders for the first time. Since the beginning of the epidemic in January, Taobao has registered more than 30,000 new live-streaming merchant accounts per day.

Looking Ahead

With the epidemic not yet over, it is unclear whether all these trends will continue once life gets back to normal.

One of those with the greatest potential for future growth is live-streaming. Around two-thirds of Chinese online consumers said they had purchased products via live-streams in the past 12 months, according to a survey by AlixPartners – and more than 80% said they would do so again in the future.

And while property remains one of those items that people will prefer to view in person before buying, the Covid pandemic could well be looked back on as the moment when online auto sales first gained wide acceptance. That is certainly the case for online grocery shopping, which was already on the rise by around 30% per year before the pandemic.

Chinese consumers – perhaps alone in the world – will largely emerge from the Covid pandemic more confident, more optimistic about the future, and ready to spend.

Aside from online shopping, Chinese consumers embraced a range of new digital activities that do not require in-person interactions. For example, one in four people tried remote learning for their children for the first time, while services like online streaming and video chat experienced substantial increases in usage. These changes are set to endure with a majority of consumers expected to continue watching e-sports and online fitness programs.

Perhaps the biggest overall effect of the Covid pandemic, however, has been to change the way people think about consumption. This was the first time China's millennials have faced a serious economic downturn and it has forced them to think more carefully about what they consume as much as how they consume it. For China’s digital landscape this translates into a greater emphasis on trust, transparency, quality and reliability. Delivering confidence will be as important as any improvement in delivery times.

Despite this, Chinese consumers – perhaps alone in the world – will largely emerge from the Covid pandemic more confident, more optimistic about the future, and ready to spend.