The coronavirus epidemic is exposing the dichotomy of the world’s second largest tech economy. Chinese businesses like Alibaba and Meituan with outsized footprints in the material world are rushing to contain the fallout while virtual denizens ByteDance Inc. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. ride a surge in social media and entertainment.
It boils down to the difference between hawking analog and digital wares. Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Meituan Dianping have shed $28 billion of market value since Covid-19 erupted in central China in January because they depend on millions of people and trucks to ferry packages and meals through an increasingly tangled nationwide transport network. WeChat operator Tencent, which flogs virtual goods like costumes and armor in mobile games or sprinkles advertising online, has gained about $18 billion. Its market value now hovers around half a trillion dollars.