At the end of a cab ride in Chengdu, my driver pulled over at my destination and asked, “You using Alipay?”—referring to the ubiquitous mobile phone app. No, I explained, I only had cash. I pulled out 50 RMB ($7.50) for the 25 RMB ride. “Oh,” the taxi driver responded, surprised anyone in 2017 still used cash. “I’m so sorry, I don’t have any change.” I ended up running out to a nearby store to break my 50 (thankfully the cashier had some physical bills stashed away) and returning to pay the embarrassed driver.
Today, cabs, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and Starbucks coffee shops all expect payments through the scanning of a QR code rather than with dirty bills and coins, a huge shift from just a few years ago. Mobile payments in China rose to $5.5 trillion in 2016, with Alipay making up 54 percent of the market and WeChat Pay making up 40 percent. This number will continue to grow, as the messaging app WeChat has 963 million monthly active users.
The mobile payment services’ low cost and high ease of use (by just scanning a QR code) make them accessible to businesses everywhere, from small food stalls to large fast-food chains like the ever-popular KFC. Credit cards are rarely used in China, as boutiques can’t afford expensive card-reading machines or their high fees.
This makes life difficult for foreigners who can’t set up WeChat Pay or Alipay because they don’t have a Chinese bank account or a Chinese ID number. Foreigners also can’t use China’s version of Uber—a ride-sharing service called Didi Chuxing—or the popular shared bikes found parked along sidewalks, piled high in front of subway stations, or strewn in small alleys.
Despite mobile pay’s convenience for locals, it still makes me wonder: What happens if your phone runs out of battery power? Then you’re not only without a way to contact others, but you’ve practically lost your wallet as well. And by using mobile payments, Alipay and WeChat—and by extension the Chinese government—know your every move and can collect massive amounts of data about your spending habits. For instance, let’s say you’ve secretly given birth to a third child, violating the country’s two-child policy: Once you start buying diapers, baby clothes, formula, and baby food with Alipay, it’ll be impossible to keep the child a secret from Chinese officials for long.
Combined with widespread security cameras equipped with facial recognition technology (even in taxicabs) and the requirement of a resident’s ID number when purchasing a phone, setting up a social media account, or even signing on to Wi-Fi, there seems to be no longer anyplace in China that’s safe from Big Brother’s gaze.