With the coronavirus outbreak crippling normal life in China, technology has rushed to the fore on many fronts as literally a lifesaver: robots in hospitals, health code apps, online education and remote working all played crucial roles in keeping the country operational with most of the population trapped in self-isolation.

But as the devastating outbreak starts to ease within China and life gradually returns to normal, many are asking whether the pandemic will leave a permanent mark on the way people work and live, accelerating long-term trends such as the digitalization of education, work and even people.

Many are asking if the coronavirus pandemic will permanently change how people work and live in China. (Picture: Brian Wang/SCMP)

Xu Yuting, an 18-year-old high school student in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, has been learning online since early February because schools, like most businesses in China, were shut down to prevent the disease from spreading. In the past month she has ploughed through tests and homework on collaborative work app DingTalk.

However Xu, who is preparing for college entrance exams this year, may soon be able to wave goodbye to endless hours of watching live-streamed courses on her computer.

While her school has not announced an exact date for return to classes, some parts of China, such as Yunnan and Guangxi, plan to reopen schools for students facing the pressure of college or high school entrance exams later this month or early next month.

In northwestern Qinghai province, China’s first batch of 144 high schools and secondary vocational schools reopened earlier this month.

Although looking forward to a return of face-to-face learning, Xu thinks online courses will remain part of her study routine when she gets back to the classroom. “It would be nice to have a hybrid of online and offline courses in future, otherwise… I could lose interest if just limited to one method,” she said.

Her elder sister Xu Qingqing, 24, a kindergarten teacher, was spared from giving live-streamed lessons to her young pupils during the outbreak, but picked up the use of collaborative online tools to follow up with parents on their kids’ progress, and to work remotely with colleagues via DingTalk and other management tools.

She believes the digitization of education will improve the efficiency of her job as a teacher. “Tools like this are changing the traditional way of thinking that a meeting can only happen when people gather physically,” she said. “I personally hope my school will continue using the app [after the outbreak is over].”

Kang Liping, a primary school teacher, records an English lesson for online in Yinchuan, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, on February 17. (Picture: Xinhua)

XYLink, a Beijing-based cloud video conferencing company, is counting on users like the Xu sisters to propel further growth when the pandemic dies out. The company has seen a spike in demand from businesses, schools and public institutions including hospitals and banks, growing its user base to over 10 million during the coronavirus outbreak.

A Tencent-backed start-up founded in 2015 by former Polycom employees, XYLink provides services to business users such as local governments as well as big state-owned enterprises like China National Petroleum Corporation and banks.

“A large bulk of users can be retained as their needs for telecommuting will not disappear, especially for those who had a better experience of using remote working systems during the outbreak,” said Zhou Pan, vice president of market at XYLink.

Remote working and online education tools have been among the biggest beneficiaries during the outbreak when most of the country’s residents were kept indoors due to lockdowns, with double the number of downloads in the first 10 days of February compared to the same period a year ago, according to App Annie.

Some of the most popular business apps include Alibaba Group’s Dingtalk, Tencent’s WeChat Work and Tencent Meetings, Huawei’s Welink, Bytedance’s Lark and Pinduoduo’s Knock.

Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

“The internet giants offering these communication tools – with basic capabilities delivered free – are educating users and the entire market,” Zhou said.

DingTalk recorded a 356% increase in downloads from both iPhone and Android smartphones in mainland China from February 2 to February 29 compared with January 5 to February 1, while WeChat Work and Lark saw a 171 and 650% increase respectively during the same period, according to mobile research firm App Annie.

While the surge in the application of online tools during the outbreak may subside in the post-virus period, it has offered a glimpse of the future of working life.

Meanwhile, the digitization of education could democratize education resources for a large number of users at lower cost. For instance, China’s prestigious schools like Tsinghua University offered online courses on short video app Douyin during the outbreak. One user commented “I can’t believe I’m in a Tsinghua University class!”

“The outbreak has exposed the vulnerability of some offline businesses, and there will definitely be a need for new online, digital development,” said Frank Yang, a senior analyst at Analysys, who anticipates some drop off in applications like remote working but that the overall level will remain higher than the pre-pandemic period.

While online working and learning are not a novel phenomenon in China, wider acceptance of online life could expedite the digitization of businesses and industries, a key part of China’s overall ambition to utilize technology to power the country’s buildout of “new digital infrastructure.”

“Protracted disruption amid the pandemic will force most firms to make up their minds and go digital,” Zhang Xinhong, research director on the sharing economy at the China-based State Information Center, said in a recent webinar.

“These firms were previously not incentivized to go online when their bricks-and-mortar businesses were still doing well. However, remote working, ecommerce, online education, and online services will now become new options for more companies under the new circumstances.”

The buildout of digital infrastructure in China involves everything from new high-speed railway lines to smart traffic management systems, all of which will be underpinned by next generation mobile networks that enable faster data transmission speeds and greater connectivity. China has already pledged billions of yuan in investments towards building 5G networks and data centers.

China must accelerate the construction of “new digital infrastructure such as 5G networks and data centers” on top of speeding up “key projects and major infrastructure construction already included in state plans,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told a meeting of China’s top policymaking panel, the Politburo Standing Committee, earlier this month according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Jiang Hui believes his start-up Shuwei Media Technology, which previously revolved around tracking and analysing customer location data for shopping malls and retail stores, fits right into that blueprint.

The Shenzhen-based company developed an open platform during the outbreak to track confirmed cases based on public information, enabling it to predict possible community outbreaks with the help of big data and use of a wristband that tracked the movement of people under quarantine.

“The coronavirus outbreak has actually called closer attention to the importance of the digitization of people,” said Jiang, a vice president of Shuwei. “What we are doing essentially is to digitize people, and provide services based on the labels, location and other information that we attach to people.”

The company is preparing to extend its digital capabilities and analytics to the realm of digital infrastructure too. “We’re more closely integrated into the new infrastructure blueprint after the outbreak, and we believe we have a part to play whether it’s industrial internet or transportation,” Jiang said.

To be sure, China’s move to online still has a long way to go as the current experiment has exposed limitations on the application of remote working and e-learning.

Passengers walk up the stairs during morning peak at a subway station in Beijing on March 9. With almost no new Covid-19 cases being reported in Beijing, workers are slowly returning to their offices with masks on and disinfectant in hand. (Picture: AP)

While the country has the world’s biggest internet population of 854 million people, 541 million are still off the grid, with the majority located in rural villages, according to the latest figures from the China Internet Network Information Center. Among the unconnected population, 15.3% reported that they do not own a computer or a device that can access the internet.

As China continues to push online education, signing up 232 million e-learning users by June last year, the digital divide has deprived students in less-developed areas of access to online resources.

Some students in Hubei province, where the disease hit the hardest, had to hike to the top of mountains to search for an internet signal, for example, Chinese media Paper.cn reported.

Similarly, even when infrastructure is in place, not all business owners accept the idea of their employees working remotely.

Some Chinese companies are rushing their workers back to the office amid reports that employers and employees have reported a drop in efficiency during this “working from home” period.

“They… didn't have a good experience [of remote working] because they didn't feel like they could monitor and manage their employees,” said Moe Vela, chief transparency officer of TransparentBusiness, a US-based company offering work-from-home tools.

“What we are providing is… the ability to monitor and manage remote working more efficiently as another benefit,” Vela said.

“The only limitation [of remote working] is that it can only monitor computer-based work. It won't work to monitor remote plumbers or electricians or manufacturing jobs.”

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post.)