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Fast-forward China: How COVID-19 is accelerating five key trends shaping the Chinese economy

Events expected to play out in the Chinese economy over the next several years have been compressed into a short few months.
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Fast-forward China

Over the last few months, COVID-19 has spread across the world, uniting humanity in a shared experience that has highlighted the vulnerability of our societies. As the first country to grapple with the crisis, China has been on the frontlines both of post-COVID-19 economic recovery, and of the societal changes the pandemic has precipitated. Efforts to stabilize the domestic economy are already well underway, and though China’s first-quarter gross domestic product declined 6.8 percent over the previous year, according to government statistics, our simulations suggest that economic activity may have bottomed out in the first quarter.

As that recovery takes shape, several important shifts in the makeup of China’s economic landscape have already become apparent. COVID-19 has accelerated preexisting trends, ushering in the arrival of a future we were likely already on track to realize. In this report, we discuss five trends shaping the Chinese economy that have been accelerated, or “fast-forwarded,” as a result of the onset of the COVID-19 crisis (exhibit).

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Fast-forward trend 1: Digitization

COVID-19 has not only accelerated digitization in business-to-consumer (B2C) applications and channels, but also the traditionally less digitized part of the economy, such as areas requiring physical interactions, and business-to-business (B2B) processes.

Before COVID-19, China was already a digital leader in consumer-facing areas—accounting for 45 percent of global e-commerce transactions while mobile payments penetration was three times higher than that of the United States. Consumers and businesses in China have accelerated their use of digital technologies as a result of COVID-19. Based on our mobile surveys of Chinese consumers, about 55 percent are likely to continue buying more groceries online after the peak of the crisis. Nike’s first-quarter digital sales in China increased 30 percent year-over-year after the company launched home workouts via its mobile app, while property platform Beike said agent-facilitated property viewings on its virtual reality showroom in February increased by almost 35 times compared with the previous month.

Working practices also changed significantly: enterprise communication platform DingTalk almost doubled its monthly active users in a single quarter to 177 million. In healthcare, digital interactions accelerated—the rapid growth of online consultations, partly thanks to a regulatory shift in reimbursement policy, as well as broader virtual interactions between pharmaceutical sales agents and physicians. These changes occurred ahead of wide deployment of 5G technology, which will likely catalyze the use of digital tools.

Fast-forward trend 2: Declining global exposure

A mix of geopolitical and economic forces was already driving a change in the relationship between China and the world, and COVID-19 appears to be accelerating this trend.

Before COVID-19, China had been reducing its relative exposure to the world as the majority of economic growth was generated by domestic consumption, supply chains matured and localized, and its innovation capabilities were enhanced. The US–China trade dispute raised risks and uncertainties, and about 30 to 50 percent of companies surveyed by various institutions in 2019 indicated that they were considering adjusting their supply-chain strategies by seeking alternative sources or relocating production to other geographies. COVID-19 has intensified the debate, with several governments calling for companies in critical sectors to relocate their operations back to their home countries and announcing financial support packages to facilitate this. Twenty percent of companies surveyed by AmCham China believe COVID-19 may accelerate “decoupling.” A paper published in February by the European Union Chamber of Commerce highlighted how diversification is now at the top of the agenda for many European companies in China. Global trade and investment has slowed sharply, and the movement of people has become highly restricted.

Despite these trends, the full picture is more nuanced. Given the size and the growth potential of the Chinese market, investing in a supply chain and innovation footprint to serve China will continue to remain important. And China for its part will continue to require global technology inputs in order to maintain productivity growth. The relationship between China and the world will be a function of the decisions that all parties make over the course of the next several months and years.

Fast-forward trend 3: Rising competitive intensity

China’s leading companies retain an outsize share of profits and return on investment, but cut-throat competition threatens their position. COVID-19 will raise competitive intensity, creating even bigger rewards, and risks, for companies in China.

In China, the top decile of companies capture about 90 percent of total economic profit, while the ratio is about 70 percent for the rest of the world, according to our analysis of the world’s top 5,000 companies. This leading cohort is comprised of companies that have already digitized and possess highly agile operations, strengths that served them well during the epidemic. For example, Alibaba’s Freshippo supermarkets surmounted supply constraints and met soaring online orders for fruit. Foxconn’s agility allowed it to switch factory operations to mask production, protecting employees, and enabling resumption of production earlier than competitors. Popular short-video platform TikTok announced it was hiring 10,000 new employees when the virus hit a peak. At the other end of the spectrum, weaker companies, particularly SMEs that are not sufficiently agile or digital savvy, are vulnerable to cashflow issues, unemployment, and business failure.

Fast-forward trend 4: Consumers come of age

China’s affluent younger generation had never experienced a domestic economic downturn prior to COVID-19. The virus has forced them to think harder about spending, saving, and trade-offs in purchasing behavior.

Attitudes to spending among consumers in their 20s and 30s, traditionally the engine of China’s consumption growth, have changed markedly in the wake of COVID-19. One survey showed 42 percent of young consumers intend to save more as a result of the virus. Consumer lending has also declined, while four out of five Chinese consumers intend to purchase more insurance products postcrisis. Savings have also rocketed—the country’s household deposit balance increased by 8 percent over the first quarter to reach 87.8 trillion RMB. Meanwhile, 41 percent of consumers said they planned to increase sources of income through wealth management, investments, and mutual funds.

The virus has also forced purchasing trade-offs, with consumers seeking better quality and healthier options: more than 70 percent of respondents in our COVID-19 consumer survey will continue to spend more time and money purchasing safe and eco-friendly products, while three-quarters want to eat more healthily after the crisis.

Fast-forward trend 5: Private and social sectors step up

During the 2003 SARS outbreak, the government and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) were the primary actors during the economic recovery. Now, the private sector and leading technology companies are playing a more significant role, making large socioeconomic contributions amid the emergence of powerful social institutions that have donated millions to recovery efforts. Policy debates also indicate COVID-19 might be accelerating long-awaited structural reforms to land, labor, and capital markets.

In the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak, SOEs were the major driver of China’s economy, accounting for about 55 percent of China’s assets, and 45 percent of profits. Today, the private sector contributes close to two-thirds of China’s economic growth, and 90 percent of new jobs, illustrating a significant shift in the balance of economic power. In the wake of COVID-19, joint efforts between government and large private companies have played a leading role. For example, Alipay and WeChat supported the Shanghai government’s “Suishenma” health QR code launch to help contain the spread of the virus.

These actions illustrate the growth of the private sector, its ability to participate in activities of national importance, and the potential of public–private partnerships. Meanwhile, social institutions including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Vanke Foundation have donated millions of dollars to aid recovery efforts. We expect social institutions like these to play a vital role in shaping Chinese society going forward.

In the rest of this report, we explore in more depth how five key trends that have been shaping the Chinese economy have been accelerated by the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

Download Fast forward China: How COVID-19 is accelerating 5 key trends shaping the Chinese economy, the full report on which this article is based (PDF–844KB).

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