Three years ago, in early 2020, Wuhan announced the closure of the city due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Three months into my family’s confinement as residents of Wuhan I wrote “A personal account of gaming and life in Wuhan during the COVID-19 outbreak” to share my story about gaming during the initial Wuhan lockdown with Niko’s readers. Now that the lockdowns have ended, it is time to tell the second part of my story of what happened in the past three years, as well as the promise for the future in China.
January 2020-December 2022
In total, my family lived under the COVID-19 pandemic policies for 36 months, of which 35 months were “city quarantine” or “quiet city” policies; On December 7, 2022, China’s National Health Commission issued the “Notice of the National Health Commission on Further Optimizing the Implementation of the Prevention and Control Measures for the COVID-19” (referred to as “New 10 Issues”) which relaxed the quarantine controls in the country. My family caught COVID immediately after the controls were lifted, as did many others – nearly all at the same time, and then we spent nearly a month recovering. We recovered in time to have the best Spring Festival Holiday (January 21-27, 2023) of the past three years.
In the past three years, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives significantly:
- Pre-pandemic I lived and worked in Shanghai, and frequently traveled to see my wife and children in Wuhan. With the pandemic and remote working I opted to remain in Wuhan most of the time with my family.
- A lot of people – including myself – have been working online, attending conferences online, learning online and shopping online for three years. Online activities have become the normal lifestyle for a lot of people.
- Digital payments are also becoming more of a norm. Roughly 95% of my transactions are cashless, and people rarely carry paper currency.
- We have become used to preparing homemade food daily instead of eating out and we are also getting more proficient in preparing homemade remedies for minor illnesses. We even bought a freezer to store large quantities of food to make sure we have enough when needed.
- Wearing masks has become the norm outside of the home, even since the control measures were relaxed. More than half of all people on the streets and at least 3/4 of the people inside shopping centers in Wuhan continue to wear masks.
The natives were getting restless
Chinese residents became vocal about reopening society in the 2nd half of 2022. The unpredictable COVID-19 quarantine control measures that affected both the global and Chinese economic environment in 2022 had changed our normal life, and we were tired of it.
- In 2022, we experienced COVID-19 testing at least every day for more than one month. COVID-19 testing became the most important part of our life in that period. Schools required parents to submit COVID test results for the whole family regularly.
- On September 1, 2022, my two daughters started their new school semester, but they only had two weeks of in person classes, and then the school resumed online only. This was the longest online learning period since the long quarantine period at the beginning of 2020. My 12-year-old daughter studied online from 7:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day. The class time plus homework time meant that she was online for school 15 hours a day. My 3-year-old daughter just entered kindergarten, so she had no online courses. Rather, she mostly stayed and played at home. Our patience was tremendously tested with juggling their busy schedules at home.
- In October 2022, after the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, there were rumors that the COVID-19 controls might be gradually relaxed. On November 11, 2022, the “Notice on Further Optimizing the COVID-19 Prevention and Control Measures” (referred to as “New 20 Issues”) was issued. The pandemic control measures were relaxed, but the city was still not fully reopened. Before October exposure to someone with COVID led us to be labeled “indirect contacts” and led to more than ten calls from different local-level government officers requiring us not to go out and to just stay at home. The local policy included nurses who came to conduct COVID-19 testing at residential areas for three days at random times. If we are not at home, we would be treated as uncooperative which may result in a punishment. Fortunately, after the release of the “New 20 Issues”, the community officers directly handled COVID tracing in their system, canceled the warnings and reminders, so there was no more enforcement to stay at home and wait for COVID-19 testing.
- In fact, after the “Zhengzhou Red Code Incident” (where city officers were found to use the health code to prevent victims of a financial scandal from protesting) and other related events, the people’s trust of the government-issued health code (e.g., Green Code for healthy individuals and Red Code for infected individuals) weakened. However, we still needed to use the health code to check in to grocery stores or pharmacies for daily necessities.
- On November 24, 2022, after the “Xinjiang Fire Incident” (where COVID-19 restrictions are suspected of preventing residents of an apartment building to escape a fire that engulfed the building), protests against COVID-19 control measures occurred successively in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and other major cities.
- On December 7, 2022, the “New 10 Issues” was released, which significantly relaxed the COVID-19 control measures. After the issuance of the policy, borders were reopened, previous extreme measures were stopped, but without official guidance, without booster shots, without self-testing papers, our lives were suddenly changed.
Lockdowns stopped, people got COVID
Since December 2022, I have heard of more of my friends and acquaintances who experienced COVID-19 symptoms. On December 16, I began to suffer from a cold, but I did not catch a fever. On the afternoon of December 18, I began to experience a fever which reached 38.5°C (101.3°F). I was self-quarantined inside a room in my home. The fever subsided on December 20, but I felt weak and greatly lost my appetite. On the evening of December 20, my wife and two daughters all caught fever at the same time. On December 22, their fevers subsided, but we continued to cough for the next 10 days. By the end of December, we had regained our health. During this period, more than 90% of the people I know experienced a similar process with different symptoms.
- The COVID-19 virus spread very fast here in China – faster than anywhere else we heard of in the world for these variants. Almost one month after the official release, practically everyone I knew got COVID.
- The symptoms were stronger than regular flu, which was contrary to what health experts said. People questioned some of the inconsistent messages of health experts about COVID-19, as they contrasted with previous statements.
- Most of us recovered at home, and some of us did not even take any medicine.
- Official COVID-19 tracing data was no longer published. Most people who I personally know also stopped checking the data as they are not scared about COVID-19 as much as before.
- However, I have heard from my friends that they saw more old people in their hometowns who passed away in winter 2022 compared with the previous year, which we suspected might be linked to COVID-19.
A month after the border reopened, everyone gradually recovered from this round of COVID-19 infections and the Spring Festival Holiday was coming. Many people chose to go back to their hometowns. We also left Wuhan and visited Xianning (my wife’s hometown) and Hengyang (my hometown) for the New Year Holiday. It is the year with the strongest feeling of Spring Festival Holiday in the past three years, which made us reminisce memories of the Spring Festival we experienced during our childhood.
From Spring Festival 2020 to Spring Festival 2023, things have changed
As the three years of COVID changed many things, this year as we welcomed the Year of the Rabbit we were acutely aware of how much the culture and tradition of Chinese Lunar New Year holiday festivities had also changed. I’ve outlined the differences from my childhood 30 years ago, to pre-pandemic festival celebrations, until this year for 5 facets of this important cultural celebration:
- Fireworks’ return to prominence
- 30+ years ago: Fireworks were a must-have during the Chinese New Year celebrations, but not cheap. We split a package of firecrackers to set them off one by one, in the field, around the house, or at the water margin.
- January 2020: No one went out during the Spring Festival in January 2020, and fireworks were banned or restricted from public use in many cities and localities in China (with certain exceptions) from 1993.
- January 2023: Although the measures to ban fireworks in various cities are still active, more and more people are setting off fireworks, both quietly to openly, even though they kept getting reminders from patrolling police officers. In the suburbs and villages, adults and children can be seen happily playing with fireworks and firecrackers with smiles on their faces. My uncle, who has a fireworks business, told me that the fireworks he prepared had been sold out in three days starting from the Spring Festival Holiday, and he planned to prepare more this year.
- Spring Festival Gala
- 30+ years ago: We anticipated the Spring Festival Gala, an annual TV program that was popular in China. We usually had dinner before the program started, sat around the fireplace, and then proceeded to watch the Spring Festival Gala until late. The program was a rare occasion for most people to watch a variety of entertainment.
- January 2020: Wuhan began to close the city one day before the Spring Festival Gala, which makes us anxious. Our eyes were fixed on our mobile phones to get the latest information about COVID-19 firsthand, and we were completely uninterested in the Spring Festival Gala.
- January 2023: As was customary before COVID, we turned on the TV to play the Spring Festival Gala, but also spend more than 80% of our time looking at our mobile phones, reading posts in WeChat, sending New Year’s greetings, and playing mobile games. The children also officially got the permission to freely play games during the holiday which made them mostly focused on gaming and not on the Spring Festival Gala.
- 30+ years ago: On the first day of the New Year, all villagers or residents would gather in the ancestral hall, and then went to pray for the ancestors on the mountains.
- January 2020: There was an online mourning organized in solidarity for the people who died because of COVID-19.
- January 2023: Many young people returned to their respective hometowns in 2023, more than previous years, as many of the elderly passed away by the end of last year. My grandfather also passed away and most of my relatives returned home. Starting at the end of last year, my uncle also suffered from a heavy illness. His children, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, and grandchildren all went home for the New Year Holiday. They never returned together like this year. Due to the separations caused by the COVID-19 control measures, I feel that everyone now paid more attention to familial relations.
- Dragon dance
- 30+ years ago: Dragon dance was one of our favorite activities. Each village will have a dragon dance team to perform in other nearby villages. We were happy to follow the team everywhere. It was a pride to join the team when we get older. This is also an opportunity for young people in different villages to show themselves to each other.
- January 2020: Cities began to be closed one after another, and the whole country was “silent.” No dragon dance activities were held.
- January 2023: Even though a lot of young people returned to their hometowns during the Spring Festival, they did not have enough time and energy to organize dragon dance activities as they needed to go back to work right after the holiday. However, this year we still saw a dragon dance team organized with more middle-aged people in the village, rather than young people and children.
- Visiting relatives
- 30+ years ago: Visiting relatives was the most important tradition during the Spring Festival. There were few many vehicles. People might have even walked 15 kilometers over fields and mountain roads to visit relatives. Adults would play cards while the children would set off firecrackers. We would stay for one night at a relative’s house then went to another relative’s house the next morning.
- January 2020: New Year’s greetings were only done online via video calls. Interestingly, we were contacted by more relatives and friends as we were in Wuhan the center of COVID-19.
- January 2023: After the border opened, more people travelled. The trains were full, and it even took many days to buy tickets. Adults play cards, get together to chat or play mobile games. Children get together to play games. Older children play games on adults’ mobile phones. Younger children play casual console games in which the legal versions are now readily available in China. My 3-year-old daughter played Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation, and Xbox in different relatives’ houses.
China is ready to play again, gamers have been ready all along
As the COVID-19 pandemic is receding in China, more people can travel and economic activities are returning to normal, resulting in the Chinese people regaining their confidence following years of lockdowns. China’s video game market has undergone significant growth since 2019 but hit a road bump in 2022 due to the tough macroeconomic environment, a stricter regulatory environment impacting youth gamers and ISBN licensing, as well as impacts from the ongoing Zero COVID policy. At Niko Partners, we foresee that the reopening of society and the newness of the Year of the Rabbit are welcoming the rebound of China’s video game industry in 2023. Here are 5 positive signs that the industry will return to growth this year:
- China’s exit from Zero COVID policy and the focus on economic growth outlined at the Central Economic Work Conference has restored confidence in the macroeconomic environment for 2023, with the tech sector expected to receive concrete policy support.
- The National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) has returned to a regular cadence of approvals in 2023 with 175 domestic licenses issued in the first two months of the year. This is already more than 1/3 the number of domestic licenses issued in 2022.
- The NPPA also issued the first batch of import game licenses, including the highly anticipated title Valorant, at the end of 2022. This batch comes one year and a half after the last round of import game approvals, signaling the regulator has started to re-approve import games.
- The mobile game market, which declined in 2022, witnessed strong YoY growth in January 2023, making it the best performing January of all time. This comes after December 2022 recorded the worst December performance since the start of the pandemic.
- Finally, we’ve seen increased usage of internet cafes, streaming platforms and other positive metrics that indicate gaming usage is starting to increase.
And if this optimism proves true, your company wants to be ready for it. We offer a number of market research reports, topic reports, and ongoing subscription data and insights services for China’s video game industry. Please contact me to talk about my experience in Wuhan or about our 2023 research plan!
Vice President, Niko Partners