The Greatest Difference Between 2003-SARS and 2019-nCov Crises is the Rise of China Tech

People wearing surgical mask sitting in subway in Shanghai (source: shutterstock)

The 2020 Lunar New Year celebrations were marred for the Chinese by the outbreak of a new alarming coronavirus. As the number of patients and countries affected keeps increasing every day, the world again has its eyes on China. Many have compared the 2019-nCoV outbreak to the 2003-SARS epidemic. Indeed, the two unfortunate public health crises have a great number of similarities, from the culprit of the virus to the symptoms and the timing of outbreaks. While media and the internet have the development of the situation covered, reporting on the number of infections, evacuations, lockdowns and etc., I would like to examine how Chinese tech companies (Tencent, Alibaba, Bytedance and etc.) changed how a public health crisis is handled. I won’t talk about the bio-tech investments they made or dive into their R&D contributions. Rather, as a curious observer of China Tech and someone who personally witnessed both outbreaks, I would like to share my personal experience and a few perspectives on what role Chinese tech companies’ products and their influence on Chinese netizens’ social and consumer habits play in dealing with a national emergency.

1. How information is distributed: a new decentralized news network is racing alongside traditional centralized news sources

I was in Beijing in 2003, the most severely infected city at that time. Although I was only 8 years old, I still vividly remember those odd days. I stopped going to school and my parents also stayed at home. I was not allowed to go to the supermarket or visit my friends anymore. The entire family freaked out when my dad got a fever and we were too afraid to go to the hospital (thank god that was just regular flu).

When normal life was put on pause and there was nothing to do but wait, turning on the TV and switching to CCTV News was the first thing we did every morning. That was where we got to know how many people were newly diagnosed, how many were dead, which cities were locked down, and what we could do to prevent being infected. TV news channels were the only source for people like me to know what was going on. The first case of SARS was discovered around early December 2002, but the outbreak was only made public by Guangdong official media in mid-February of the following year. Lunar New Year was in between, and as you can imagine, it was extraordinarily dangerous when millions of people traveled across the country with no clue of the virus.

Now let’s turn the clock back to today. Similar to SARS, the first few cases were discovered around late December. On December 30, a confidential report from Wuhan government bureau started to travel around the Chinese internet and rumors about a SARS-like disease spread regionally. On December 31, Wuhan officially confirmed that there was a novel unidentified virus, and the next day Huanan Seafood Market, which was commonly believed to be where the virus originated, was closed. On January 21, Dr. Zhong Nanshan nationally announced the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the 2019-nCoV. On January 23, Wuhan was abruptly put on lockdown.

Information transparency is a structural problem for all organizations and institutions, especially in a slow-moving bureaucracy. The fact that nowadays people in China do not solely rely on a single official source of information is an undeniable contributing factor that forced the centralized information sources to speed up and increase transparency.

Thanks to new social media platforms, such as WeChat, Weibo, and Tiktok (Douyin), Chinese people now live in an (almost) decentralized news-sharing environment, where everyone, regardless of their authoritative status, can be a news generator and distributor. There’s no centralized content provider and level-to-level approval process in such a distributed network. In the case of the 2019 n-CoV, the first few rumors came from WeChat groups where Wuhan hospital staff warned their families and friends. After the news was publicly confirmed, people started sharing the articles and information within their own networks (in WeChat one group can have up to 500 people).

Dingxiangyuan, a leading connector and digital service provider to China’s healthcare industry, was first to launch a real-time dashboard and updates on the number of infected people and regions. It immediately went viral on the Internet, and became the first-hand source for many people to keep on top of the virus news. Increased level of information transparency significantly raised public awareness: on the same day when Dr. Zhong confirmed human-to-human transmission, medical masks and hand sanitizers were sold out virtually everywhere.

Some might argue that in a distributed information network, it is hard to filter out the truth, as it provides an opportunity for people to intentionally create public panic. However, in my personal opinion, the public has a right to panic, if withholding information has even the slimmest possibility of jeopardizing their safety. What I also saw in this Wuhan coronavirus crisis is that when the general public has the ability to distribute information, it also showcases more willingness to voluntarily stop the spread of fake news. For example, only a few days after the coronavirus became a public topic, Tencent news launched a platform called JiaoZhen (Find Out the Truth) specific for the 2019-nCoV, it provides clarification and verification for falsified but well-spread information.

real-time dashboard and updates on the number of infected people and regions (source: Dingxiangyuan)

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2. How Tech Platforms Empower Large-scale, Grass-root Driven Public Activism

Apart from facilitating information-sharing, China’s reliance on social platforms has made those platforms a powerful engine for community mobilization. Thousands of WeChat groups were formed overnight to help and support Wuhan, spanning different areas from fundraising, medical-resources supply, to psychological support to medical staff. Those groups were led and supported by individuals and civil organizations (alumni networks, for example), bringing people from in and outside the country together. A few days after Wuhan was locked down, more than 20 hospitals published announcements asking for medical-supply donations directly from the public on WeChat and Weibo, bypassing official pathways and local governments.

In addition to thousands of grass-root initiated groups, Tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent are also using their influence to facilitate crowd-funding. When people search “Wuhan Fighting” on Taobao (Alibaba’s e-commerce platform), the result is redirected to Alibaba’s Philanthropy portal where one can donate. Similarly, more than 8 million people have already donated 400 million yuan through Tencent.

Tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent are also using their influence to facilitate crowd-funding (source: Sunny Jiang)

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3. How the government is collaborating with the world of tech

On the Basis of Sex was my favorite film of 2008, from where I learned that radical social change happens without the permission of powerful authorities, same as tech-driven innovation and its social influence. How to collaborate with technology and use it properly to serve the public is an ongoing topic for all governments around world, especially emerging economies. During the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic, I saw two ways in which the Chinese government adapted to the new information era: 1) publishing real-time official information on social media; 2) gathering feedback from individuals through WeChat mini-programs.

  • CCTV Official Weibo Account posts real-time news on the development of the coronavirus outbreak. Weibo’s comment section is open to public for feedback. In the era of decentralized information networks, official news sources can only join the race to outrun unofficial sources.
CCTV Official Weibo Account posts real-time news on the development of the coronavirus outbreak (source: Sunny Jiang)
  • State Council uses a WeChat mini-program to source feedback and gather evidence of government officials’ wrongdoings.
State Council uses a WeChat mini-program to source feedback and gather evidence of government officials’ wrongdoings (source: Sunny Jiang)