'I dare not order': China's 150 million online shoppers fear virus threat

An employee works at a Tmall logistic centre in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, on Oct 28, 2015.
Reuters file

Fear and confusion are spreading among Chinese consumers and overseas suppliers that China's restrictions on international mail aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus will have a prolonged negative impact on the once-booming overseas online shopping business.

Concerns about contracting Covid-19 from coronavirus traces carried on the contaminated surface of imported goods have long existed in China, but this escalated on Monday (Jan 17) as authorities in Beijing said the city's first patient diagnosed with the Omicron variant had received a letter from Canada earlier this month.

This prompted a flood of posts expressing regret and confusion from consumers on various Chinese social media platforms, with many users having already been punished for placing overseas orders.

"I just found my code had turned yellow, and I received a call saying I need to get tested three times in seven days to turn it back to green because I received an overseas package," one Guangdong-based Weibo user said on Tuesday. "That's the cigar I bought last month and it hasn't been delivered yet."

China employs a colour-based QR code system, with a green health code required to enter an office building or public facility. This allows people to move more freely than yellow or red health codes, which require compulsory testing and quarantine.

"This package may turn my code to yellow and make me unable to go home during the Lunar New Year holiday," said 41-year-old Wang Wei, a frequent buyer of overseas products online who just bought a hat from Europe that is yet to be delivered.

"There is also sportswear that I want to buy … but because of this yellow code uncertainty, I dare not place the order."

The first Omicron case in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen has also been linked to an overseas package received from North America.

"The possibility of contracting the coronavirus through a contaminated item imported from overseas cannot be ruled out," Shenzhen health official Lin Hancheng said on Monday.

But Canada's health department insisted that while mail could be contaminated, "the risk of Covid-19 infection when handling paper mail or cardboard packages, including international mail, is extremely low".

"In general, coronaviruses including variants do not spread from products or packaging shipped over a period of days or weeks," Health Canada said.

As a precaution, overseas packages will undergo multiple rounds of disinfection on their arrival in China, as well as warehouses, before they are delivered, with industry insiders confirming the measures had already been implemented.

Austria-based daigou Neo Wang makes a living from buying luxury goods overseas and shipping them to China, but has seen his business hit by the disrupted global logistics network.

"The flights [between Austria and China] have been much fewer than before," said Neo Wang, who is unsure whether to continue to ship parcels due to fear of causing problems for his clients.

"Previously, it usually took two weeks for a package to arrive in the hands of my clients, now it takes three to four weeks.

"In my understanding, even if there is virus on the mailed item initially, it cannot survive [for so long]."

China's State Post Bureau issued a notice on Sunday warning of the risks of importing the virus via international mail and deliveries.

"All enterprises should … fully disinfect the outer package of international mail and express deliveries one by one as soon as possible … reduce the purchase or mail order of items from high-risk countries and regions," the notice said, echoing warnings from multiple cities in China.

In 2020, China had around 158 million online shoppers buying overseas products, according to a report by Chinese market research firm iiMedia in April.

"Since the pandemic began, the market has already been negatively impacted," said chief iiMedia analyst Zhang Yi. "From the perspective of consumers, the demand has been shrinking."

My feeling is that doing daigou business is getting harder and harder. No one around me said their business is goodNeo Wang

China's strict border controls have halted the flow of consumers travelling overseas, but daigou businesses have not been able to fully reap the benefits, added Neo Wang.

"Now the domestic economic situation is not good, which has significantly suppressed people's demand for luxury goods, and the freight costs have been soaring too, which pushes up the prices," he said.

Hainan's duty-free zone has also squeezed the demand for daigou services in the past year, he added.

Duty-free sales on China's island province of Hainan surged to 50.49 billion yuan (S$10.7 billion) in 2021, growing by 83 per cent from a year earlier as the number of duty-free shoppers also increased by 73 per cent year on year, according to official figures.

"My feeling is that doing daigou business is getting harder and harder," Neo Wang said. "No one around me said their business is good."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.