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Imaginechina via AP

A passenger uses Alipay to pay for bus fees in a bus in Nanjing, China (Imaginechina via AP)

Snapshots of China

Cashless complications

The popularity of mobile payments in China means some taxi drivers don’t even carry change

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.

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Imaginechina via AP

A Catholic church in Qingdao, China. (Imaginechina via AP)

Snapshots of China

A church in decline?

Why Protestantism has grown so much more quickly than Catholicism

A year ago, I wrote a story about the fiery, 85-year-old former Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong and his staunch opposition to an agreement between the Chinese government and the Vatican, which at the time was believed to be months away. The Chinese Communist Party cut ties with the Vatican in 1951.

Today, talks are stalled, as the two sides continue to grapple over how bishops are chosen: Should the ultimate control be with the Vatican? Or the government-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association? There are also concerns about what would happen to the underground Catholic Church, which in the past 70 years has faced intense persecution for their loyalty to the pope.

At a recent Mass dedicated to Wei Heping, an underground priest who died two years ago under suspicious circumstances, Zen reiterated the foolishness of making a deal with the Chinese Communist Party: "Dialogue is important and necessary. However, [the Holy See] is too optimistic about the communist regime. It has depended on its diplomacy instead of faith. It does not have a bottom line to reach an agreement."

In China, the Catholic Church has faced greater difficulties from the government than Protestants because of their direct connection to a foreign authority. While Protestant churches are growing in both numbers and boldness, Roman Catholicism is stagnating and even shrinking. The difference in numbers is staggering: Protestants numbered 1 million in 1949 (the beginning of the People’s Republic of China) and has grown to about 60 million today. On the other hand, Catholicism grew from 3 million in 1949 to just 12 million today.

In the Jesuit publication America Magazine, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ian Johnson examines the causes for this difference. For one, Catholic missionaries were slower than their Protestant counterparts in raising up indigenous leaders. So when the Communists took over and kicked out the foreigners, the Catholic Church struggled to survive as local Protestant believers stealthily evangelized and started house churches.

While Protestant churches are growing in both numbers and boldness, Roman Catholicism is stagnating and even shrinking.

The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church also made it more difficult to grow under a repressive government, which requires unapproved groups to travel light and flexible. Even underground Catholic churches need their bishops approved by higher-ups, while any Protestant believer with access to a Bible (or a part of a Bible) could start a church anywhere: in a house, a farmhouse, or a warehouse.

Johnson traveled to the small Catholic village of Dongergou in Shanxi province, and found that Catholicism is still mainly a rural religion in China. As the villages empty out, the faith isn’t translating to the cities. They see Catholicism as a part of life they were leaving behind, rather than a vibrant faith for their new life in the big cities. Meanwhile Protestant churches are growing among the urban population.

“We do feel that in terms of expansion, we are not as ambitious and bold as Protestants,” Jing Anqi told Johnson. The 27-year-old Catholic had moved from a local small village to Beijing. “They can preach more confidently. But what we focus on now is trying to influence people with our deeds, not with our lips.”

Turtle-shaped rock formations: At every scenic tourist spot I’ve visited in China, tour guides love to point out a rock shaped like a turtle, a hill that looks like nine horses, or a sandstone column that looks like a maiden holding a basket. Sometimes the likeness is ambiguous at best, and I loved how author Peter Hessler described this phenomenon in his 2001 book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze: “This is a ritual at every Chinese nature site; there seemed to be no value in the natural world unless it was linked to man—some shape that a mountain recalled, or a poem that had been written about it, or an ancient legend that brought the rocks to life.”




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YouTube screen grab/Radio Free Asia

Angela Gui testifies before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (YouTube screen grab/Radio Free Asia)

Snapshots of China

Daughters of dissidents

For children of disappeared Chinese dissidents, advocating for their fathers’ plight comes with an emotional toll.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump arrived in Beijing for a “state visit–plus,” an upgraded experience including private talks with President Xi Jinping, a military honor guard, a formal banquet, and “special arrangements,” according to Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai.

Yet while Xi puts the full array of Chinese opulence on display, under the glimmering veneer is the ugly reality of human rights activists disappeared, imprisoned, or monitored, as well as the grief and worry experienced by their spouses, parents, and children. Currently two young women, 23-year-old Angela Gui and 24-year-old Grace Geng, are each still waiting for the Chinese government to free their fathers, who had both been imprisoned for criticizing the Communist Party.

Chinese authorities said they freed Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai on Oct. 17 after holding him for two years in prison. Yet a week later the government’s claim, Gui’s daughter Angela said in a press release that she hadn’t heard from her father and “it is still very unclear where he is.” A few days later, Bei Ling, a friend of Gui’s, said Gui was “half-free,” was currently staying in the city of Ningbo, and had met with his wife and mother.

Like other Chinese dissidents before him, Gui, though out of prison, is likely still under the constant surveillance of security agents. Chinese authorities kidnapped Gui from his apartment in Thailand in October 2015, whisking him off to the mainland along with four co-workers from his book publishing company. Gui made a televised, apparently forced confession of his involvement in a 2003 hit-and-run incident, and received a two-year prison sentence. The real reason for his incarceration: Gui was working on a gossipy book about President Xi’s love life.

The disappearance prompted Angela to become an advocate for her father’s release. She has testified before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the British House of Commons. As a result, Angela believes she’s being monitored: In 2016, two Chinese men approached her in Frankfurt, Germany, and took her photo with a large camera, according to the Taiwan Sentinel. “Even if I don’t constantly worry about my safety, the fear is always there subconsciously,” she told the Sentinel. “I avoid being alone in unfamiliar places, and have regular contact with friends and family when traveling.”

Last month at a London panel on China’s human rights abuses, Angela met another young woman who understood her situation: Grace Geng, the daughter of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was tortured and imprisoned in China for several years. In August, two fellow human rights activists snuck Gao out of the home where he was being held under house arrest. Gao had no teeth left and could not eat due to the pain and bleeding, a result of beatings and malnutrition. After 23 days, government officials found Gao, placing him back in secretive detention.

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