SHANGHAI — China is stirring from its coronavirus-induced hibernation. More than two months after the government moved to lock down Hubei province and large swaths of the country, there’s a growing body of evidence the nation is on the road to recovery.
The number of new positive coronavirus cases has slowed to a trickle — and mostly accounted for by returnees. Last week, in one of the most encouraging indicators that the tide had turned, the government lifted the lockdown on most of Hubei. The city of Wuhan, one of the hardest-hit areas in the province is still under quarantine but will soon see travel restrictions lift on April 8.
Car traffic in Shanghai and Shenzhen have returned to normal levels, a report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch observed, although Beijing as the capital is under stricter rules and is still quieter than usual. Nomura also noted that as of March 24, the cumulative business resumption rate had risen to 86.5 percent across 15 cities it sampled.
Social distancing remains intact but major malls in Shanghai, such as IAPM and HKRI Taikoo Hui, which even a week ago had barely any customer foot traffic to speak of, now are getting a decent flow of masked visitors to shop and dine, albeit spaced one table apart. The properties have also dropped the practice of enforcing individual temperature checks on everyone who enters their premises.
However positive these signs are, the resumption is only part of the equation. COVID-19 is both a supply and demand shock. China’s manufacturing base may be normalizing, but it does so just as demand in other major economies are hit critically, with overseas brands and retailers rushing to cancel orders and sometimes flat out rejecting finished goods from their vendors.
Markets are still underestimating the hit from COVID-19 to China’s exports, Nomura said, adding the pandemic spreading to other major economies would have “devastating” effects. It predicted export growth to fall precipitously from an estimated negative 20 percent year-over-year in the first quarter to negative 30 percent in the second quarter.
At the same time, the country is vigilantly watching for a potential second virus outbreak from imported cases. On Saturday at midnight, China essentially closed its borders to foreign nationals, including ones that hold working visas for China — only special visa categories like diplomats or flight crew members are exempt.
It also moved to severely limit the number of international flights, with foreign airlines only allowed one flight per week into the country. In addition, incoming international flights to Beijing since last Monday have been required to stop over in other Chinese cities first for passenger virus screening before travelers are able to continue onward, a decision that appears to be a way to keep the capital’s case numbers low.
The long weekend national holiday of Qing Ming falls this April 4 to 6 but evolving travel restrictions and uneven enforcement of quarantine measures on a local level means people are unlikely to travel or gather as they usually do.
Companies in the meanwhile are leaning heavily on digital and e-commerce, with livestreaming gaining quickly in importance. Shanghai Fashion Week just wrapped a week of livestreamed shows although the jury remains out on its effectiveness, while Alibaba said the number of merchants utilizing its Taobao Live for the first time surged 719 percent in February, compared to January, helped by the waiving of all usual service fees and other barriers.
Others like Pinduoduo were relying on major promotions. The country’s third-largest e-commerce platform said it would hold a shopping festival on Tuesday in conjunction with the retailer, Gome. It plans to give away 500 million yuan, or $70.5 million, worth of incentives in an effort to promote a rebound in domestic consumption.
Called “Super Brand Day,” the sale is to begin at midnight on March 31, the first of a series of large-scale sales promotion events it plans to hold, the company said.
“We are responding to the government’s call to speed up the rebound in consumption, and that was the motivation behind our collaboration with Pinduoduo,” said Gome retail vice president Wang Bo. “We believe that there will definitely be an explosion of pent-up demand after the coronavirus outbreak.”