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China’s mobile game market hit sales revenue of 209.68 billion yuan last year during the pandemic, according to Gamma Data. Photo: AFP

Coronavirus has changed China’s entertainment habits, but consumer spending is still weak

  • Stagnating income growth and job losses have seen many Chinese turn to cheap online entertainment during the pandemic
  • Sales revenue in China’s games market last year increased 20.71 per cent year on year to 278.69 billion yuan, according to Gamma Data

With international travel off the cards and cinemas intermittently closed, young Chinese like Jiang Tang have been spending more time entertaining themselves online since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

When not at home, scores of young people gather during the evening at milk tea cafes to play online games in the southern city of Guangzhou.

“To attract young consumers, the cafes are equipped with fast internet speed and are rushing to launch one-litre packages of drinks and snacks that cost about 50 yuan per person,” said Jiang, a 27-year-old administration executive.

The trend towards online entertainment has helped dash hopes of post-pandemic “ revenge spending” in the mainland and highlighted continued sluggish consumption in the world’s second largest economy.

Although China was the first major economy to bounce back from the pandemic, income growth has slowed in recent months, forcing many working and middle class residents to seek out cheap online entertainment to amuse themselves. For others that can afford it, weekend getaways have replaced trips abroad.

Underwhelming consumer data has added weight to some analysts’ earlier predictions of a “K-shaped recovery” from the pandemic in China, when different parts of the population rebound from recession at different rates, exacerbating underlying inequalities.

Over the past two years, Chinese households have continued to take on more debt, with a corresponding decline in household consumption, especially among younger families, according to the Institute for Advanced Research at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.

The situation is reflected in consumption data for the first quarter of this year. Total social retail sales in the first three months were 10.52 trillion yuan (US$1.6 trillion), growing just 7.6 per cent from the same period in 2019, much lower than the average annual growth rate before the epidemic, according to government data.


Disabled Chinese teen live-streams esports performances to support his family

Disabled Chinese teen live-streams esports performances to support his family

Household income levels also slowed significantly in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the fourth quarter of last year, according to an April report released by the Survey and Research Centre for China Household Finance at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics.

The survey‘s income index for households with annual earnings of 10,0000 yuan to 300,000 yuan (US$46,000) resumed positive growth in the third quarter of 2020, but fell to 98 in the first quarter of 2021. A reading below 100 represents a contraction.

Meanwhile, the income index for households earning 50,000 yuan or less each year increased from 62 in the first quarter of 2020 to 70 in the first quarter of 2021, still far from positive growth.

Income growth has slowed recently mainly due to the erosion of company profits, especially those downstream, following soaring manufacturing costs, said Li Qilin, chief economist at Hongta Securities said in a report released in April.

When young Chinese are spending their disposable income, they are often choosing to use it on video games or other online entertainment.

An April survey conducted by CCTV, the National Bureau of Statistics and China Post, this year found 38.28 per cent of Chinese are spending most of their leisure time on mobile entertainment – including playing games and watching videos – more than any other activity.

“Some of our engineers in their 20s and 30s could spend 3,000 yuan or more each month on buying gaming equipment and new outfits worn by game characters,” said Jeff Wang, who works with a tech start-up in Guangzhou. “Even if we hang out together, we actually play mobile games for fun.

“Every restaurant popular with young people has two common ingredients: innovative decoration and fast internet speed, so that we can take a lot of photos to put on social media and play games.”


Scannable QR code appears in sky above China’s Shanghai

Scannable QR code appears in sky above China’s Shanghai

According to Gamma Data, a Chinese research firm focused on gaming and entertainment, sales revenue in China’s game market last year increased 20.71 per cent year on year to 278.69 billion yuan.

The mobile game market in particular hit sales revenue of 209.68 billion yuan, a year-on-year increase of 32.61 per cent.

Online entertainment is proving particularly popular while international travel is off the cards, but domestic travel is seeing a revival from the lows of 2020, too.

Yan Chao, a 34-year-old e-commerce trader in Shanghai, said he and his friends dreamed of travelling to Japan, Korea, or Southeast Asia as soon as possible.

“But the income of everyone has not recovered from the pandemic,” he said. “I think that working families are more receptive to weekend countryside tours that cost about 1,200 yuan for a family of three.”

With the borders unlikely to open until at least the end of next year, more Chinese are trying to sate their desire for travel by taking smaller and cheaper domestic trips, according to the China Tourism Academy.

Still, domestic tourism numbers are down on last year and spending on public holidays in May and June lagged far behind expectations.

During this year’s Lunar New Year holiday – when Chinese typically splurge on travel and dining – consumption increased 28.7 per cent from 2020 to 821 billion yuan, but it was still below the amount for 2019, which was over 1 trillion yuan, according to government data.

A total of 4.1 billion domestic tourist trips worth 3.3 trillion yuan will be made in China in 2021, up 42 per cent from 2020, according to an estimate from the China Tourism Academy in February.

But that is far less than 2019’s 6 billion visits worth 5.73 trillion yuan in tourism revenue.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Young turn to consoles for consolation