TechFirst >> Living & working in China with coronavirus: chatting with a tech exec in Beijing


What is it like to work and live in China right now as the country deals with the coronavirus or COVID-19 situation?

I had the privilege of speaking with James Ren, a sales executive for Singular (a client of mine) about his life and work right now for my TechFirst podcast. We talk about restrictions on meeting and going places, how people are working through the coronavirus crisis, and whether the crisis and new behaviors that it is forcing will have long-term consequences on personal, social, and business life.

Just one example of what’s happening now: Ren leaves the house once every three days to get food.

Another: food delivery apps are going gangbusters, since restaurants are only open for delivery, not for eating in. Also, price gouging is illegal, and charging more for products like face masks has landed some people in jail.

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Full transcript: living with coronavirus in China

John Koetsier:   Welcome to TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier. Today we’re talking about coronavirus and its impact on the tech industry … and on industry in general. We’re going to talk to James Ren, who’s currently living and working in the country that’s at the very epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic, in Beijing, China.

What’s it like to live there? What’s it like to work there? What restrictions are there on meeting, going places, doing things? How are people working through the crisis? This is TechFirst with John Koetsier … let’s dive right in. James, welcome!

James Ren: Thank you. Thank you, John. 

John Koetsier: It’s a real pleasure to have you here. Glad you can come, virtually of course. Talk to us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and what your role is, that sort of thing. 

James Ren: Of course. Hello everyone, my name is James. I’m right now working as a sales manager for American sales company called Singular, and right now based in the capital of China, Beijing. My primary goal from my job is actually to help Chinese mobile publishers to promote their apps or games to global market by leveraging Singular’s tool. 

John Koetsier: So talk to me a little bit about the last, I guess, month, maybe a little bit more. What’s life been like? 

James Ren: Actually these events all happened a little bit before the Chinese New Year, which is the biggest holiday of China. And it’s been over a month already, I think, that the lockdown of the whole city of Wuhan just released that like three days before the Chinese New Year, and I was in San Fran actually for a company event, and ever since I got back from US I’ve been actually staying at home with very limited activities. All I do is just go to the grocery shopping every three days, and just walk my dog 30 minutes every day. Every day, that’s it. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

James Ren: It’s very difficult. 

John Koetsier: So, so what’s the … if you’ve got work meetings, if you’ve got things that you need to do, you’re doing that all remotely?

James Ren: Sorry? 

John Koetsier: So if you have work meetings, you’ve got to call somebody, you were going to meet somebody or something that, you’re just doing that all remotely now?

James Ren: Right. Speaking of that, so first of all, the national holiday lasts for seven days, but because of the coronavirus, actually the government decided to extend the national holidays to two weeks. So right now, the official time that I got back from holiday and I’ve been working is for two weeks already. In this two weeks time, all I do is actually talking with my clients online, virtually, definitely on instant messengers or through phone calls because most of the people, most of my clients, or even like in a broader picture companies, are working from home. 

The company needs to apply for a special license from the government to make sure they are able to take precautions to ensure the safety of the employees. For example, if the company’s able to provide enough face masks to their employees, or they can sterilize the public area on a daily basis, if they don’t … if they cannot do it, all the employees are not allowed to go back to the working place.

John Koetsier: Wow, wow. 

James Ren: Yeah. 

John Koetsier: And so if you’re going outside anywhere, you’re wearing a face mask as well?

James Ren: Yes, yes, that’s the number one thing. Definitely wear face masks. You know, if you don’t wear it, you’re not allowed to get into any public places like supermarket or pharmacies, the hospitals, whatever, it’s not allowed to get in. Even you’re just walking randomly in the streets, people will come up and it reminds you to wear masks. So it’s a number one thing, everyone has to do it, has to wear it. 

John Koetsier: Wow wow. Do you personally know anybody who might’ve been affected by the coronavirus? 

James Ren: Yes, actually from my clients because you know this is the time that people go back to their home town to celebrate with their families. So I talk to my clients actually and some of them happen to be the residents of Wuhan. So right now it’s the epicenter, like you say, of China. This is the worst place to be right now. All they do, it’s actually worse situation than other cities. They are just being home, that’s it. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

James Ren: They’re actually being put in home quarantine, or let’s put it this way, maybe for two weeks or three weeks, with very, very limited access, maybe once in three days and one of the family members is allowed to go outside to shop for food. That’s it. 

John Koetsier: Wow, wow. And are there shortages? I mean, you said that you go out every three days or something like that. Is there enough or are you starting to see some products are not in stock or some food items are not in stock anymore?

James Ren: That’s a very good question actually. It’s actually sufficient right now from what we can see, because that’s actually the government’s number one thing, to ensure that the people still have food. And also Chinese government is actually implementing really strict rules. It’s not allowed for any business owner to increase the price. 

John Koetsier: Oh, wow. 

James Ren: It’s not allowed. And a lot of people are putting a huge increase on the face masks and they got a sentence, and they put them in jail. So this is strictly not allowed. So they’re trying to maintain as it is supposed to be.

John Koetsier: That’s good news. There is definitely price gouging going on here. I’ve seen it on Amazon. I’ve heard people, they’re going to the store and face masks are very popular right now, as is hand sanitizer, other things like that as well. And they’ve seen the prices jump 10x or 5x or something like that. So that is definitely going on at least in the States, and I think in Canada as well. I live in Vancouver, Canada, and so we’ve definitely seen some of that here. 

James Ren: I think it’s sold out worldwide, face masks.

John Koetsier: Yes. It seems like China has a handle on the spread of coronavirus right now based on the numbers that we’re seeing. Can you talk about that a little bit? Have you seen that? 

James Ren: Sorry, can you come again? 

John Koetsier: No worries. We are using the internet all the way over to China right now and it’s pretty busy because everybody’s doing their business online. So, probably a little challenging. It seems like, based on the publicly released numbers, China is getting a handle on the infection rates at least locally in China. Does that seem accurate to you? 

James Ren: It is true. It is true, actually. I was, you know, because it’s public news all over the internet and you can easily check how many of them … what’s the number of the patients in your city? Maybe even in your neighborhood? They make this information public. So from what I can see is actually other than Wuhan, the central city where this virus was firstly being found [and] is still severely effected by coronavirus, but other than that, major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, it’s actually quite okay. Beijing in total, the numbers of the patients have ever been detected and treated in Beijing is 400. 

John Koetsier: Okay. 

James Ren: So since day one it’s 400 patients has been found and treated here in Beijing, which is actually relatively low. 

John Koetsier: It’s very low. I mean, Beijing is a huge city obviously, there’s more patients in Italy. 

James Ren: Exactly, but please bear in mind Beijing is the biggest city in China with a population of over 30 million people, so it’s incredibly low. And so by saying that all the hospice was actually equipped and they have enough people to take care of the patients.

John Koetsier: Yes.

James Ren: And if you look at the global scale, actually it’s even worse in Korea. Korea, right now they have patients of 5,000. 

John Koetsier: Right.

James Ren:  So which is like, seriously, if you just consider compared to the other province of China, it’s already ranked at number two, right after Wuhan.

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. Wow, wow. So you’re living and working from your home base right now. You’ve got good quality internet at home, which is useful, it makes it worthwhile. I’m guessing there’s people who maybe don’t have the best internet. I’m guessing that the internet is probably getting pretty busy as well. We heard that Zoom is getting super popular, all kinds of video conferencing. I’m sure there’s plenty of local solutions as well for video conferencing that you’re using. Are you seeing congestion on the internet because everybody’s using video calls? 

James Ren: Yes, yes. I think this kind of online video calling or conferencing is all of a sudden become a very popular thing. You know, even right now schools are closed, like physically, but they’re still trying to give classes online. So it makes the video streaming such a demanding thing to have. Other than Zoom, which is quite popular among the business sectors, we also have some local vendors coming from Alibaba and also Tencent.

So basically, and also ByteDance, they provide really good solutions for an online videoing and also they can even create virtual conference rooms. So imagine that your worker is actually just sitting next to you, but over the internet. You can easily talk to them. So yeah, it’s become really trendy and everyone is actually quite equipped for that. 

John Koetsier: I wanted to ask you if you feel like this is going to change business longterm, and maybe for people who can do remote work, enable more remote work. But before I get to that, I want to ask what’s it like doing business entirely online, entirely via video call? Is it as effective? Is it more challenging or is everybody just kinda coming together and saying, ‘Hey, this is the new reality, this is how we’re working and we’re going to make it work?’ What’s the experience like for you? 

James Ren: I think it definitely varies between different jobs and roles, especially for me it’s … the impact is huge to me as a sales manager, because my job requires me to interactive with people in real time, and it’s better to be face on face. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

James Ren: So, in most of the cases that I need to talk to someone I never know before, I haven’t ever meet before. So it’s really difficult to build this kind of trust and the relationship online through like WeChatting. WeChat is the number one social app in China. Yeah, this is very difficult. To be honest, it’s really really difficult, but for the ones … from my experience, for example, the user acquisition manager, what we call mobile marketing, it has been affecting them like to the minimal level because everything is done online.

They just need a computer to optimize campaigns on Facebook or Google, and internal communications, it’s never going to be a problem as well if they have very good video calling solutions. But other than that, I mean, because we are working on a virtual business, what we do is it’s applications, mobile games. So we don’t really need a lot of human interactions. Everything’s happened online. So it’s really good, but yeah, but I think the traditional businesses are really suffering from this. 

John Koetsier: Absolutely. If you’re in manufacturing and other things like that, as you were talking earlier, they’ve got to certify that they can provide enough masks. It’s got to certify that they can disinfect and another things like that. Even so they’re starting up slowly and we’re seeing the impacts on Apple. We’re seeing the impacts on Samsung. We’re seeing the impacts on a lot of other products as well. I think China is 20% of the world’s trade, right? It’s a big global partner for a lot of countries, so it’s significant. Do you think that this will have an impact on business longterm? I mean, we already see things in North America and not sure how much it’s happening yet, but people are saying, ‘don’t shake a hand, instead do a fist bump, or don’t even do that, do a greeting like this [bow] or something like that.’ Do you think that this is going to change business longterm or do you think that things will go back to normal in a few months? 

James Ren: I think things will go back to normal because it isn’t really how the world operates or runs, you know, completely on internet. That’s not how we actually live our lives. It’s impossible not to go back. And also because China has histories, how China has suffered from SARS, which happened like 17 years ago. 

John Koetsier: Exactly. 

James Ren: Exactly. So we had experiences like this. So the primary goal for the Chinese government or any individuals is definitely to fight hard to contain the virus completely and try to bring things back to normal. But of course, some change is going to happen. For example, right now we have seen some very specific industries are thriving, for example, deliveries, e-commerce, these kind of food delivery services are really thriving because of people actually cannot … only the restaurants … for example, let me take an example. We have thousands of, millions of restaurants open for business, but they are not able to let the customer to walk in and dine in. So the only option left is delivery, or you pick it up yourself. So it increased the demand significantly. So I think that these kinds of businesses definitely do benefit from it.

John Koetsier: Yes.

James Ren: And of course we talk about the video streaming is benefiting from it. Manufacturing is suffering from this. But I think it’s because I read it somewhere, the cost of just shifting the manufacturers from China to other cheaper country is actually huge as well. 

John Koetsier: Well, and you don’t do that over night.

James Ren: So as long as we solve the problems in a relatively low, you know, short period of time, things can just go back to normal.

John Koetsier: Yeah, yeah. So interesting. Video conferencing, remote software, remote working software, those companies are doing well. Delivery companies are doing really, really well. You know, it is interesting. I’m guessing gaming companies are doing pretty well as well. Social media companies … 

James Ren: Right, they are reaching their revenue peak during the holidays because everybody is just playing games.

John Koetsier: Wow, wow. Okay, so this is super interesting. I want to thank you for a lot of this insight you’re giving us. What other information are you getting from medical authorities on what not to do? I mean, what are you being told about how to stay safe. 

James Ren: I think it’s pretty easy, because if you don’t have symptoms it’s regular. It’s like everywhere has been shown in publicities like in the US. Wear masks and wash hands regularly, as much as possible, and just avoid going to public places, and try to minimize your public activities as much as possible. But if you have symptoms of course you need to visit a hospital as soon as possible. And like I said, except Wuhan, everywhere else in China right now is totally capable of taking care of the patients because the numbers are actually very small, so they are equipped. So other than Wuhan everything is cooling down and expected to go back to normal very soon. 

John Koetsier: Well, I certainly hope that’s the case. We are not seeing that globally because of course we are in a different scenario. You know, certainly Canada, the US, Italy, Korea, other countries around the world we’re seeing increasing growth and deaths where we hadn’t seen deaths before either. So hopefully we can learn a little bit from how China has dealt with this, and hopefully be able to solve it very, very soon. I lost you for a little bit there James, the internet was down for half a moment.

James Ren: I’m back.

John Koetsier: You look like you’re back, that’s awesome. Excellent. Anything else? You talked about how it’s hard to do business. How is it personally and maybe socially, I mean with you and your family. Do you get together? Do you see each other or is it all WeChat and video?

James Ren: Everything is based on WeChat right now. For me personally, I am coming from a city next to Shanghai, so Beijing is not my hometown. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

James Ren: It’s my second home, so I don’t get to see my parents every day, and because of the situation I didn’t visit them during Chinese New Year as well. So it is very difficult, I haven’t seen them for a while. And my social life has been minimized to a certain degree. I don’t see people anymore. Most of the public places are closed … cinemas shopping malls, they are all closed. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

James Ren: Nothing much is happening outside anyways.

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. 

James Ren: So just doing everything from home and online. 

John Koetsier: And that’s interesting as well because there’s been people talking about symptoms of social isolation, psychological things, sociological things that just you’re not seeing people anymore. You’re not interacting with people anymore. You don’t hug people anymore. You may not see your parents or your near relatives, your family, other things like that. Hopefully things change. Hopefully we beat this thing very, very quickly. I suspect on a global scale though there’s a lot more work to go through before we get there. James, I want to thank you for being on TechFirst with me. 

James Ren: Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

John Koetsier: Thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier and I appreciate you being along for the ride. Whatever platform you’re on, please like, subscribe, share, comment, or all of the above. And if you’re on the podcast later on and you liked this, please rate it and review it. That would be a massive, massive help. Thank you so much. Until next time, this is John Koetsier with TechFirst. 

James Ren: Thank you. Bye bye.