Digital transformation and the rapid adoption of remote and autonomous technologies – many of them already existing – has underpinned China’s swift recovery from COVID-19, opening up many opportunities for western tech firms.
Rapid return to normality
On 8 May, the Shanghai municipal government lowered its public health emergency response from the second level to the third. On the same day, Shanghai Disneyland, which was closed on 25 January, restarted ticket sales and sold out within minutes.
The rest of the country, including the pandemic epicentre Wuhan and the capital Beijing, lowered its risk level even before Shanghai. This allowed 90 million people to travel within China over the Labor Day holiday.
Many held their breath to see what would happen but, with the widespread use of digital technologies such as QR codes for checking citizens’ health, together with traditional techniques such as restricting capacity, the country came out of it relatively unscathed and is now on its way to recovery.
In the process, many sectors — including logistics, retail, and healthcare — have been transformed, thanks to quick decisions by government and businesses to deregulate and deploy existing and available technologies to combat the worst effects of COVID-19.
One such sector is logistics, where the rapid deployment of drones and autonomous vehicles – despite previous struggles with regulators – has minimized the need for human-to-human contact.
For example, SF Express, China’s biggest private courier, obtained a license to test drones back in 2017, but it still couldn’t operate large commercial models of over 25 kgs. That changed with the onset of COVID-19, enabling the company to gain permission to deliver medical goods in Wuhan.
The same is true of Chinese ecommerce giant JD.com which, since the outbreak, has been using drones and L4 autonomous vehicles to deliver medical supplies.
Another sector to benefit is healthcare. For example, the Chinese government launched a health check system by using two ubiquitous apps, Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat, to host a QR-code based system for contact tracing.
Digitized healthcare — or telehealth — was also a natural target for acceleration. The combination of self-isolation and the need for healthcare dramatically increased the use of telehealth platforms.
China’s biggest telehealth company, Ping’an Good Doctor, experienced a ten-fold increase in newly-registered users between January and mid-February. With over 1,000 telehealth companies in China trying to alleviate its overburdened healthcare system, COVID-19 forced many patients to adopt new ways and try telehealth services for the first time.
Robots also gained rapid acceptance. For example, hospitals and shopping malls were quick to use security robots for sterilization and temperature monitoring. Many of these robots existed before COVID-19 but, due to budget, education or policy concerns, were only being used in small-scale pilots.
Food and beverage
Even in the traditional food and beverage sector, automation has increased with the deployment of robot chefs and waiters.
Before the pandemic started, Panasonic formed a joint venture with Haidilao, China’s biggest hotpot restaurant chain, to deploy robots in restaurants. The objective was to reduce labour costs and increase efficiency, but the enhanced hygiene levels and reduced requirement for human contact that these robots allow meant that these restaurants were the first to re-open this March.
So, what does it all mean?
Firstly, lessons can be learned from China about how existing technologies can be quickly adopted and optimised to manage and monitor epidemics; you don’t have to develop brand new technologies to create solutions.
Secondly, it’s created commercial opportunities across a wide range of sectors for western companies with ‘best-of-breed’ technologies, at a time when economies in Europe and North America have come to an almost-complete standstill.
If your company has a technology which could contribute to China’s rapid digital transformation, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain access to a market that is open and offers potential for new, lucrative revenue streams.