Cashless in China: An experiment with mobile payments for a day

Cashless in China: An experiment with mobile payments for a day

The task is simple, my editor told me. Try going around without cash for one entire day and rely only on mobile phone for payments.

BEIJING: The task is simple, my editor told me. Try going around without cash for one entire day and rely only on mobile phone for payments. 

Easy, I thought. These days in most Chinese cities, many are using a smartphone to pay for just about anything, and I am no exception. But is it really possible to last a day without cash, and on a day that I have to travel across Beijing to conduct interviews too?

And so, let’s start this from the moment I left my house and headed to work.

In a break from my usual routine, I decided to grab breakfast from a roadside stall to see if I could pay for it using my mobile phone. But first, the question of how to get there. I could walk, or I could cycle there.

In case you have not heard about it, the bicycle-sharing phenomenon has changed the way many residents get around in Beijing and many other cities in China today. Or should I say, the pervasiveness of mobile payment, powered by apps such as Tencent’s WeChat, has enabled this change, in an almost unthinkable way.

Everywhere you look, Beijing's sidewalks are filled with parked bicycles. Anyone with an app can unlock one of these bicycles with a swipe of their phone, and pay at the same time.

I have already registered on one of these apps, so with just a scan of the bicycle’s QR code with my phone, I can pedal away for just a few US cents an hour. And these bikes can be picked up and dropped off anywhere.

Commute sorted.

I decided then to make my way to an area in my neighbourhood where a row of eateries were to get a jianbing, a sort of Chinese pancake, for breakfast.

If you think a random stall selling street food might not be sophisticated enough to use mobile payment, and my cashless mission would end here, you are wrong.

Just beside the cashier counter was a sign with a QR code that you could scan and make payments with using your mobile phone.

Guo Juan, the owner of the stall, said: “Nowadays most people use WeChat to pay and they don’t bring cash, so we have no choice. We have to accept WeChat payment.”

With breakfast settled, I made my way to office on the shared bicycle and parked just below my office.

Fast-forward to lunch - my colleagues and I decided to head somewhere a little more fancy. When the bill arrived, we knew the ritual.

My colleague, Valarie Zhang, paid for it using her mobile phone, and I then paid for my share of the meal by transferring money to her using an app on my phone. Most days, she does not even bring cash out when we head for lunch.

She said: “Using a phone to make payments, I don’t even have to bring a wallet. That means I don’t need to keep all my change, coins in my pocket. It’s very convenient.”

So that's right, we seem to be witnessing a dash by China to a cashless society. But you might ask, how did China do it?

I asked an expert who was halfway across the city.

Now, I could have gotten a cab using Didi Dache, a mobile platform taxi-calling application that works like Grab and Uber, and paid for my ride using that app, but I decided against it.

Instead, we decided to flag down a taxi on the street. Upon arrival, I asked the driver if we could pay using WeChat or Alipay. To my surprise, he had already printed out a QR code for customers to scan, so I used that to settle my payment once again.

qr code at back of cab
QR codes given out in taxis to facilitate online payments. (Photo: Jeremy Koh)

Having done that, I met with my expert, Andy Mok, the managing director of Red Pagoda Resources, and asked him why China had made such huge strides towards becoming a cashless society.

He replied: “A large part of what made it very successful is Tencent’s WeChat and then WeChat wallet or WeChat pay and they were very, very smart and very shrewd about how to drive adoption. Obviously they got a lot of people using WeChat to begin with, and through this red envelope, electronic red envelopes, really created a base of people using electronic payments soon for their daily lives.”

At the end of 2016, WeChat claimed 890 million active users, more than half of whom were logged into WeChat for more than 90 minutes a day. But with so much money floating around on cyberspace, would security or even privacy be a concern?

Mr Mok replied: “Privacy, of course, is a very very big concern and question mark. But I think that it’s inevitable because we look at these global trends, for instance terrorism all around the world, video surveillance pretty much everywhere we go, the software and the processing power to fuse all of this information that whether we like it or not, I think privacy, as we used to think of it, is changing.”

According to figures, WeChat, as well as billionaire Jack Ma’s Alipay, controlled nine out of every 10 renminbi (S$2) that Chinese consumers spent using their phones last year.

So having done the interview, it was time to head back to office, but first, I wanted to grab a drink. 

I strolled over to a nearby convenience store, bought two bottles of mineral water and settled my payment through, you bet, my mobile phone.

So certainly, I can survive a day in Beijing without using cash. In fact, as long as the cash in my bank account does not run dry, I can probably last days and weeks and months and even years without using cash.

That is how rapidly China is doing away with paper money and coins.

So consider my mission accomplished.

Source: CNA/aa