How internet services help Xian's 13 million residents cope with Covid-19 lockdown in China

·4 min read

People in the Chinese city of Xian, which has been under lockdown since late December to contain the country's worst community Covid-19 outbreak since 2020, are turning to the internet to help vulnerable citizens struggling to get food and other basic necessities.

While online food and grocery delivery services provided by Meituan and - the country's largest on-demand operators - remain operational in Xian, less tech-savvy elderly residents who are used to buying from physical stores have found it difficult to rely on these platforms.

Xian Catering, a company that operates a dozen restaurant chains in the city, decided to help out. On New Year's Day, the e-commerce unit of the Shanghai-listed firm posted on its WeChat account, asking friends and families of senior citizens in the locked-down city to submit their contact information in a document-sharing mini-program called Tencent Docs.

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Mini Programs: The apps inside apps that make WeChat so powerful

Mini-programs are essentially tiny apps that users can access within WeChat. The feature allows third-party developers to quickly roll out new services that can be accessed by WeChat's 1.26 billion users, 450 million of them daily active users of mini-programs last year, according to Tencent Holdings. In the first half of 2021, an estimated 3.4 million mini-programs existed on WeChat, according to research firm ALD.

WeChat's vast network of mini-programs has enabled users to do much more during a crisis than their counterparts on Western social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, which are primarily used as platforms for communication and donations.

Just five days after Xian Catering posted on WeChat, the company received over 2,000 requests. In a follow-up post, the company shared photos and videos of employees meeting elderly people at the gates of neighbourhoods. It said it delivered groceries and meals to 204 households.

Elsewhere in the city, students at Xidian University have also found uses for the Tencent Docs mini-program. On the first day of the lockdown, they created a spreadsheet to crowdsource information on where people can get food and water on campus.

With authorities warning residents not to leave home, food and basic supplies have been hard to come by. While mini-programs proved essential to some people, others said they have turned to other technologies.

"It has been a very tough month and I panicked a lot when I was unable to get food," a user wrote on microblogging platform Weibo. "I turned to mini-programs, but they didn't work very well, so I chose to use WeChat messaging groups."

In these messaging groups, residents list out the items that they need to see if any community members or nearby merchants can come to their rescue.

As the city gradually eases lockdown measures in some districts, some people have expressed relief that they can finally stock up on supplies.

"Today, we don't have any new cases, and it was my first time visiting a food market in person, although my electric bike has lost half of its battery after being left idle for a month," a Weibo user wrote on Wednesday. "I finally filled my refrigerator with all the meat I wanted to eat."

Xian account of life in lockdown highlights 'costs' of zero-Covid policy

Others, though, are still waiting for good news ahead of the Lunar New Year, which falls on February 1. "Will I be able to go to the food market before the Spring Festival? Or am I going to have to eat boiled cabbage on New Year's Eve?" another Weibo user wrote.

Several Chinese tech giants, which are under pressure from Beijing to shoulder more social responsibilities, have pledged donations and other forms of assistance to Xian.

In late December, Tencent announced it would give away 20 million yuan (US$3.1 million) to Xian from its 1.5 billion yuan pandemic fund that was set up in 2020. Alibaba Group Holding, owner of the South China Morning Post, and its fintech affiliate Ant Group have each pledged 10 million yuan.

Baidu-owned video-streaming platform iQiyi announced in early January that it would offer residents in Xian and the neighbouring city of Xianyang free access to 200 paid programmes.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.