When I was preparing for my very first trip to China 9 years ago, it was repeatedly emphasized to me that China was a cash culture, that debit and credit cards were not commonly accepted, and that we would need to exchange money before leaving for China in order to be able to purchase anything upon arrival. At the time, mobile payment services were still relatively undeveloped.
We were also hard-pressed to find wifi in most public places. Though that program was short and heavily-supervised, and we didn’t get out much, I remember a distinct lack of wifi on my next two trips, as well.
Fast forward to the summer of 2014. I’m sitting in a mall in Shanghai with a friend, trying to figure out which of the multiple wifi networks I should connect to – and which I can connect to, as most public wifi networks in China require you to have a Chinese phone number with which you can receive a verification code. These days, Shanghai has a nearly city-wide wifi network called i-Shanghai.
Then it’s fall of 2016. I’ve just moved to Xiamen in southern China to study for a year. I open a Chinese bank account, and I connect it to my WeChat account and open Alipay (a mobile payment app) and Taobao (online shopping, connected to Alipay) accounts. Now I can pay for nearly anything with my phone, either by scanning a QR code or by letting someone scan a QR code on my phone. This includes everything from plane tickets purchased online to taxi rides, from entire meals at restaurants to street food from the smallest stall at the night market, from snacks and school supplies bought at the supermarket to clothes ordered on Taobao. I can also send money to and receive money from friends, making repaying borrowed money much, much easier.
Then the summer of 2019. I went back to China for my second round as a NSLI-Y chaperon. At the train station in Shanghai, the vending machines did not take cash, only WeChat Pay or Alipay, and I had to help students purchase drinks. When we arrived at Xiamen University, I discovered that the washing machines that accepted coins were gone, replaced with machines that, again, accepted only WeChat Pay or Alipay. A chaperon had to accompany most students to do their laundry in order to help them pay.
In my free time one day, I went off campus to Coco, a bubble tea shop. To my surprise, there was no menu to be seen. The guy at the counter directed my attention to a small sign with a QR code. “Scan this,” he said, “and you can order from your phone.” Sure enough, scanning the code opened up the entire Coco menu, complete with pictures and options to customize your drink order. I chose what I wanted and how I wanted it, paid with WeChat, and got a confirmation screen with my order number so that I would know which drink was mine when it was ready.
In the US, most businesses, however small, have embraced debit and credit cards as a convenient payment method. I’ve even seen Girl Scout troops selling cookies accepting on-the-spot credit card payments through Square. Mobile payment is only just starting to make its way into popular usage, and no single mobile payment app seems to have come out on top just yet.
China has changed a lot in less than a decade, and I wonder about its future, not only for its citizens, but also for visitors. I was very fortunate to arrive in China this summer already having a local bank account, something a foreigner cannot obtain without a Chinese phone number and some kind of residency or student paperwork. I could access purchases that required mobile payment and/or a Chinese bank account, such as the campus washing machines, online shopping, and food delivery. I didn’t have to worry about exchanging currency because I already had money in my bank account when I arrived, and I didn’t have to worry about whether I was carrying enough (or too much) cash around with me as long as my phone had an internet connection. And in places with wifi, I could connect to that wifi because NSLI-Y provided the students and me with local cell phones. While this may not matter for foreign travelers in China who stick to tourist destinations or book their trips trough a tour company, China’s recent development trajectory could begin to pose challenges for more independent travelers or short-term students. The “cash culture” of my first trip to China is disappearing, and I’m interested in seeing what – if any – implications its replacement could have for foreigners with an interest in China.