From the “sent-down youth” of the Mao era, to the “one-child policy” of recent decades, China has a long tradition of trying to socially engineer its population. It is arguably this ability of the Chinese party-state to control and regulate the behaviour of citizens – as much as its pragmatic economic approach and authoritarian political system – that has made the PRC the rising global superpower it is today.
Now, amid the ongoing outbreak of a deadly coronavirus, Beijing is once again implementing its powerful tools of mass behavioural regulation. But unlike other recent planned experiments – such as the introduction of a nationwide “social credit” score, or the “re-education” of an entire minority ethnic group – China's newest social campaign has been unplanned and reactive.
It is in some ways eerily Orwellian, in other ways endearingly harmless. But one thing is clear: the effects of this ad-hoc experiment are already being felt acutely throughout the Chinese economy and society. From my first-hand observations, media research and conversations with contacts, I perceive this latest attempt at social engineering to be bringing about three kinds of behavioural change:
1. Remote working
In China, the concept of remote working does not really exist. For locals, particularly the older generation, being absent from the workplace is tantamount to not working at all. And despite manufacturing the hardware that has powered the world’s remote working habits, China has stuck to its traditional preference for on-site employment. Managers expect to see their payroll in the office, and the government has seemingly supported this approach, seeing no reason to overhaul the country's traditional ways of working.
That is until now. Prompting a typically one-size-fits-all policy response, the coronavirus has turned China’s outdated labour practices upside down. Because while Xi Jinping’s administration has prioritised containing the epidemic, it has also been highly conscious of the economic impact of an indefinitely immobilised workforce. Remote working has thus offered a convenient temporary solution, and state media have been quick to extol the virtues of working from home: “Remote workers are happy and stay in their jobs longer”, reports the China Daily.
In effect, the country has been inadvertently conducting what must be the largest remote working experiment in human history. And while more and more people are gradually returning to their usual places of work, much of China's 800-million-strong headcount is still home-bound. Many employers are allowing their employees to continue working remotely, perceiving both health and productivity benefits.
In particular, corporates are keen to avoid the risks of infections and using up time and resources through mandated measures like temperature screening and deep cleaning. Instead, firms have made use of online video conferencing tools such as WeChat Work and Zoom.
In many cases, those online tools are getting the job done, possibly more efficiently than the usual offline meetings. Even China’s law courts are said to have been conducting hearings via Skype! But in some sectors, including education and healthcare, technology is always going to be an imperfect substitute for human interaction. While some students and employees may be thrilled to have an “extended holiday” of sorts, many are not fans of the new working arrangements: “My boss thinks remote working means he can find me 24 hours a day.”
2. Home-bound living
This country-wide, stay-at-home project has not just encompassed Chinese people’s working patterns but also their leisure time. And once again, it has turned the status quo on its head. For compared to Europe and North America, much more of daily life in China (as elsewhere in Asia) takes place outside. Walk through any Chinese town or city, and you will likely see groups of men playing checkers, or women dancing in public, even in sub-zero temperatures. For generations, the streets have been the nation’s “living room”, where folks go to relax and socialise.
This certainly reflects my experience of living in China, where I’ve found it less common for people to socialise at home except with close family and friends. This possibly reflects the often-small footprint of urban apartments, as well as a legacy of dormitory-style living for generations of workers, whose rooms were used solely for sleeping and often shared by numerous families. An additional factor is that Chinese cities typically boast an abundance of food and entertainment options, and staying in is often more expensive than eating out.
As with remote working, the public reaction to home-bound living has been somewhat mixed. For young working people who have grown up knowing only the relentless speed of China's boom years, it has meant adjusting to an unfamiliar, slower pace of life. Online discussions reveal people dusting off games consoles, reading entire novels, baking (to varying degrees of success) and even balancing objects out of boredom.
Some internet users have described the effects that staying holed up has had on their relationships: “We've been fighting much more. Broke up twice in three days,” wrote one. “When we split he took all of my face masks,” complained another. Thankfully, some have had the opposite experience: “This disaster has brought us closer together and confirmed our love for each other”.
There is possibly also a geographic dimension to the home-bound experience; while people across northern Chinese cities such as Beijing enjoy centrally-heated apartments, those in Shanghai and further south must endure chilly, unheated dwellings likely colder than their usual places of work.
Of course, these are all highly generalised statements, and for many, particularly the affluent owners of modern metropolitan apartments, home-centred lifestyles have been commonplace for years. But now, as with remote working, that bottom-up trend is being accelerated by top-down policy decisions.
3. Limited-contact consumption
Sadly, not everything can be done from the comfort of one’s home. But for those activities which require more than a text message or video call, alternatives are springing up that innovatively reduce the need for direct human contact, thus lowering the risk of infection. Examples include:
- Restaurants selling pre-cooked dishes ready to take away
- Stores and pharmacies serving customers through a hatch
- Businesses accepting payments by smartphone QR-code only
- Greater use of designated drop-off/collection lockers for package deliveries
It is such tertiary industries – retail, logistics, travel and entertainment – which are being hit hardest by the outbreak. Suffering perhaps the worst of any has been the film business, with all of China’s 70,000 movie theatres shuttered since January 24. Lost ticket sales are now estimated at over $1.5 billion, with repercussions already being felt in global studios from Hollywood to London.
Even once the outbreak eventually subsides and businesses are allowed to reopen, tertiary industries will likely take a long time to recover amid continued fears of contagion in consumer settings. Businesses may also be wise not to scale up too quickly, as that could anger Chinese consumers sensing a rush to recoup profits rather than prioritise public health.
Yet, ever the opportunists, companies have wasted no time in adapting their business models. In the food and beverage business, previously dining-only establishments are now delivering, while commercial suppliers have sought to offload discounted produce direct to house-bound consumers. And although cinemas have struggled, streaming and gaming services have seen a surge in subscriptions. One source tells me that when movies theatres do eventually reopen, they could adopt a policy of leaving every other seat empty so as to limit people’s contact and reassure consumers still concerned about the virus.
Temporary Blip or Lasting Change?
As I’ve worked on this blog post, the measures to restrict people’s movement within China have been expanded. The new leaders of Hubei province have ordered residents to stay at home, with only one household member allowed out every third day. Beijing has escalated community lockdowns, and is now requiring anyone returning to the city to self-isolate for two weeks, regardless of their health condition. And even in the remote Kazahk communities of Xinjiang, villagers are being told not to leave their houses. Thus, in the short term at least, the grand experiment continues. And in its wake, it is spawning many more small-scale experiments in homes across China, reshaping established modes of business and consumption.
It is too soon to say what the lasting effects of this experimentation will be. In some sectors, availability is always more important than productivity, and jobs there will be unlikely to see lasting change: bosses will continue to expect bums on seats or hands on production lines. But for other areas, especially white-collar professions, this experiment could prove transformative. The key will lie in whether productivity and quality have been maintained or perhaps even improved while people have been working at home. If the answer is affirmative, then remote workers could gain the trust of previously-sceptical employers, and this in turn could bring about a broader change to Chinese labour practices.
Away from work, people might also be more likely to spend their down time at home post-outbreak than they would have done otherwise. Maybe some of the limited-contact innovations seen in the tertiary industries will live on. And, as some have speculated, this new social experiment could even have a rather interesting unintended outcome: namely, a baby boom caused by large numbers of bored, home-bound couples. China’s attempts at mass social engineering would thus come full circle, with the current at-home quarantines helping Beijing to complete another of its experiments, namely the ongoing attempt to increase the national birth rate (also known as the “two-child policy”). How likely is this to happen? I guess we will find out in around nine months’ time...
Header image: A family cycle past a poster promoting the one-child policy, perhaps the most well-known example of the Chinese government seeking to reshape people’s behaviour (WSJ).