Internet & Tech

A collective effort

Alibaba wins admirers for its efforts to fight the virus outbreak


Keeping supplies moving

The devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan in 2008 changed attitudes towards corporate social responsibility (CSR) in China. The disaster claimed 70,000 lives and left more than five million people homeless. But at least $1.5 billion in donations were made by the business community amid an unprecedented call for national solidarity.

CSR efforts weren’t measured purely in monetary terms, however. Sany Heavy Industry was one of the companies widely acclaimed for its part in the relief campaign. Images of its excavators and cranes doing the rescue work made Sany much more of a household name across China and companies have been active again in the effort to contain the coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan late last year.

One of the brands that has emerged as a leader this time is Alibaba. “All to Wuhan. Let’s do it!” the internet giant wrote on its official weibo on January 25, the first day of the Chinese New Year (of the Rat). The tech company announced that it would spare no effort in fighting the outbreak, as well as setting aside Rmb1 billion ($145 million) to purchase medical supplies.

Alibaba has turned its attention to ways that it can help in fighting the crisis. For instance, getting new supplies into locked-down locations has presented a huge problem. At one point much-needed items such as face masks and medicines were shown to be stacking up in warehouses in Hubei but not finding their way into Wuhan, ground zero for the crisis. Then the city’s “unsung heroes” of delivery staff at courier firms such as Cainiao, YTO and STO (all affiliated with Alibaba or heavily dependent on it) got to work, says China Youth Daily.

Tackling such supply bottlenecks has offered an opportunity for Alibaba to showcase the strengths of its ecosystem. It has launched a global sourcing platform to bring medical supplies directly to cities laid lowest by the outbreak and tried to keep its operations running on the ground, despite the situation. Hema, Alibaba’s retail network for fresh food, promised to operate around-the-clock, even in Wuhan. In one widely reported case, it even came to the rescue of a zoo in the city, following reports that the animals were starving to death.

Besides this Alibaba has offered free services across its platforms, such as educational livestreaming over Youku (see this week’s “And Finally” for more on this topic); access to the cloud at DingTalk (an app for business communication); and special consultations at AliHealth.

Other tech giants have contributed as well. Huawei finished the construction of 5G base stations in Wuhan in just three days as part of an infrastructure project to support two new hospitals (see this week’s “Healthcare” section). Tencent, an archrival of Alibaba, has offered its cloud computing services to medical researchers that are working on vaccines to curb the virus and it’s also supporting developers that launch mini apps on WeChat assisting the effort (for instance, apps that help individuals to make donations). The company’s online game and video platforms have also played a crucial role in containing the disease – by keeping people entertained while they stay indoors (there are said to be at least 60 million people in lockdown in Hubei province, for instance).

Nevertheless, Alibaba’s initiatives to tackle the outbreak seem to have earned most media mention – something that should bode well for the brand in the longer term. In the case of Sany, company chairman Liang Wengen spent a brief period as China’s richest man shortly after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. At one point, he even seemed on the brink of making political history as the first private sector tycoon to become a member of the ruling Politburo (see WiC123). Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma is already one of the country’s richest men. His firm now basks in kudos across China’s social media for showing its pervasive ecosystem is not just about profit.

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