A slightly adapted version of this article is published in The Buyer
A shorter version of this article concerning online wine tasting is also published in Unherd
As countries around the world enter a crucial period of lock-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, here’s a look at how the Chinese lived happier virtual lives through ‘cloud socials’ since January, and how unlikely off-line businesses have discovered new leases of life online.
Over half of the Chinese 1.4 billion population have gone into house-quarantine since the Chinese New Year (24 January 2020) due to the emergence and escalation of COVID-19. Around one-fifth of the world population are now following suit into quarantined living. In the age of inseparable connectivity, people have quickly found new ways to use social networks to share information, offer practical and moral support and create entertainment. Businesses are also looking for ways to survive, and some, even thrive, in this new and unknown world order.
How are these Chinese online socials different? Apart from the forced initiation no-thanks to being the first country to face a devastating ‘zero-to-one’ event, Chinese social networks are used to forging their own ways, due to the ecosystem of native apps as a result of the ‘Great Firewall of China’, blocking out international suites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. It is worth mentioning that China is a mobile-first payment market, with over 80% of all transactions paid via mobile phone. Most Chinese social media platforms allow users to shower others with ‘cash packets’ or reward tokens via mobile payment, known as ‘da shang’, loosely translated as ‘giving gratuity’. Now faced with a period of unprecedented crisis – livestreamings with special Chinese characteristics, known as ‘yun (cloud) socials’, are proliferating. Crucially, these online socials can readily convert into online transactions, thanks to the ease and often spontaneous nature of mobile payments. Through desperation and ingenuity, businesses and self-employed individuals have found digital lifelines during these difficult months of lock-down. Some have even managed to thrive despite adversity. Looking ahead, will they take root beyond the current plight and reshape how we live and interact socially in the future? Will different parts of the world invent even more ways of ‘cloud living’, and how successfully can they convert contents into transactions?
‘Yun’ medical services
Unlike a single non-emergency number such as the NHS 111 operated in England, hospitals across China, as well as internet giants such as Alibaba Health, have opened their own online medical service platforms. According to incomplete data as of February, over 100,000 doctors across China have consulted over 4 million cases, usually via video chat. Patients with mild or suspected symptoms are afraid of going to hospitals as the queues are long and the risk of cross-contamination is high. These online services take pressure off the hospitals as well as provide a safer environment to assess and reassure people with concerns. Equally important, are people who require other types of medical attention and prescription services – these online consultations played crucial roles in providing continuous care and delivering medicine to the door. Another notable feature of ‘Cloud GP’ is the possibility for international medical professionals to offer their expertise – qualified and verified medical doctors (mostly overseas Chinese doctors) can register to offer their help. The jury is out if such online GP services will become mainstream after the pandemic. The combination of consultation + dispensary + delivery-to-door without leaving the home can be attractive, but quality and consistency will need to be continuously monitored in order to maintain trust.
‘Yun’ wine tasting
It is a long-held belief across many cultures that alcohol could ward off illnesses. Though this claim may not be proven beyond all reasonable doubt, alcohol will certainly make an indeterminable quarantine more bearable. In China, wine drinking is a social activity, very few people would drink wine alone at home. That is why ‘Cloud wine tasting’ sessions, either casually among friends via WeChat video chat, or being guided by experts or influencers on live streaming platforms (usually with the aim to sell some wines), are gaining more traction, especially among urbane millennials. COFCO Great Wall Wine Company, China’s largest wine producer by volume, even launched a week-long Cloud wine party, complete with video sharing and rhyming couplet competition, which have attracted hundreds of thousands of interactions. Great Wall has also launched a series of ‘Yun classes’ with wine experts and mixologists to teach people about wine and making cocktails at home. The hope is to cultivate wine consumption at home beyond the quarantine period. If the wine industry can collectively bring about this shift in Chinese consumer behaviour, there would be a very bright future to look forward to post pandemic.
Online platforms such as Bilibili, TikTok, Kuaishou, to name but a few, have joined hands with bands, musicians, DJs and nightclub brands to bring ‘collective virtual raving’ to teenage bedrooms across the country. According to one platform’s February data, their ‘Cloud Clubbing’ nights attracted over 16,000,000 participants and induced 6,850,000 real-time comments and interactions. Some clubs have found to their astonishment and delight that revellers were willing to ‘throw’ large amounts of in-app cash tokens at them, as if they were in a real club buying overpriced drinks. It is not unusual for a single virtual club night to earn over £200,000 (many have made donations of their earnings to aide frontline medical needs). However the sustainability of such a format is questionable beyond the quarantine period, as the real physical immersion in a club with the lighting, sound and atmosphere would be impossible to replicate in a home environment.
A major side effect of being housebound for long is the risk of putting on weight due to lack of exercise and overeating. It is therefore no surprise that fitness apps such as Keep have seen significant user sign-ups. These apps allow you to hire real personal trainers and interact with them remotely, or to follow pre-loaded contents. You can also tailor make AI powered fitness programmes to suit your profile and goals. Of course, a full set of performance data to share with friends for one-upmanship and motivation comes as standard. You can even run a virtual marathon in your living room! These apps are not new but they have achieved significant traction as a result of the quarantine. Post crisis, these apps will focus more on merging online and offline exercise regimes and continue to grow.
In China, you can trust the Cloud fitness industry to take care of the nation’s formidable public-square-dance-troupe population, usually comprising of retired ladies. In these dire days of quarantine, they can still don their sequenced costumes and follow online choreographed set-pieces, from apps like Tangdou. When you are ready to perform, the app offers a rich library of virtual reality backgrounds and more crucially, beautifying and slimming lens filters – just watch all the praises roll in on-screen as you dance!
Tour operators are not taking the virus situation lying down either. Platforms such as Ctrip, Fliggy and Mafengwo have created ‘full service’ tour packages that you can access online, some incorporating virtual reality to provide a more immersive experience. As of March, over 1,000 tourist attractions in China have opened up Yun travel services, enticing 730,000,000 views of the Chinese hashtag ‘yun travel from home’.
As a virtual visitor, you can choose a place of interest, and enjoy VR or image galleries accompanied by professional audio and visual tour guide material. You can even buy souvenirs online. But the real aim of the game for tour operators is to tempt you into booking a future holiday.
It is easy to extend the concept to include special exhibitions and events, such as livestreaming of expert talks, live auctions or special sales. In such instances, Yun tourism can open up limited capacity events to a much larger pool of participants.
The possibilities for a parallel life in the Clouds are boundless. Chinese Yun socials have done particularly well in combining free and paid-for contents, some managed staggeringly high participation and transaction volumes. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand many other Yun-based activities that the Chinese are getting up to: ‘Yun dinner parties’ where friends relay cooking experiences and recipes and may even be judged à la ‘Come Dine With Me’ style, or ‘Yun pass-the-mike Karaoke contest’, ‘Yun’s got talent reality TV show’, ‘Yun classrooms’, ‘Yun offices’, ‘Yun Milkround recruitment fair’… The question is, when the lock down is over, will we come back down to earth?