By Qiang Lijing, Fang Ning and Chu Yi (China Features)
Although it is the first time Laura Primiceri has visited China, the British woman has quickly adapted to cashless life in Beijing.
She was aware of the prevalence of mobile payments in China before her arrival in February and downloaded WeChat and Alipay, the two most popular mobile payment services in China.
“I use them here for payment quite frequently. It’s much better than what we use in England,” Primiceri said.
During five months studying in Beijing, the overseas student learned that the cashless trend had take hold in the country with mobile payment often a daily necessity.
“The cashless life is where we are headed,” said Xiao Ligang, a cab driver in Beijing. “It is inevitable. Many drivers I know are using WeChat payment.”
Cashlessness normally means payment by smart phone. In Beijing, even senior citizens buy vegetables at the market with their smart phones; office workers hire bicycles by scanning their QR codes; and street artists provide QR codes for donations.
Whether it is making an appointment to see a doctor, ordering a take-away, or buying a ticket at home for a film that is about to begin, Beijingers can do it on their smart phones.
Starbucks has partnered with Tencent to make WeChat mobile payment available in all its coffee shops in China.
Gao Jingwen, in her 20s, can hardly recall when she last paid in cash.” I cannot think of any place I can’t pay with my smart phone,” she said.
Zhang Shucui, 67, used to take a large amount of change when going to the market near her home in Beijing’s Haidian District, but that time has gone.
“The QR code replaced the change basket in front of the stalls,” she said. “Gone are the days when I had to search all my pockets for a coin.”
“Mobile payment saves a lot of time for us and helps us avoid counterfeit money,” said Ren Tingting, a cashier at Century Mart, a chain supermarket in Beijing.
The new payment pattern has won over Chinese consumers with its convenience and
Cards and cash, the once dominant purchasing methods, have become a minority option in less than five years.
“Mobile payment companies were worried about their future just four years ago, but the spread of technology has exceeded all expectations,” said Li Gang of the Tencent Research Institute.
Data from the People’s Bank of China showed a total of 157 trillion yuan (about 25 trillion U.S. dollars) of payments were made on mobile devices in China last year, more than 200 times that in the United States in the same period. The figure is expected to continue expanding by 50 percent each year.
Ant Financial, the payment wing of Alibaba, ran a cashless week from Aug. 1 to 8. Next year, Aug. 8 will be Cashless Day again.
Chen Liang, senior PR director of Ant Financial, said the company had agreements with Fuzhou, Guiyang, Tianjin and Wuhan for city-wide cashless support.
“The Cashless City Promotion means mobile payments in all the places where cash is needed,” Chen said.
By the end of 2016, Alipay e-payment covered 357 Chinese cities.
Going cashless has also become normal for Tibetans. Restaurants, souvenir shops and movie theaters in Tibet all provide online payment services.
In addition to China, WeChat Pay covers more than 130,000 overseas businesses in 13 countries and regions, supporting settlements in 10 currencies, including Sterling, Hong Kong and U.S. dollars.
Alipay also is in some 200 countries and regions supporting settlements in 18 currencies with more than 40 million overseas merchants.
“With mobile payment services in more countries, Chinese tourists tend to carry less cash abroad than before,” said Zhao Kun, a tour guide at CITIC Travel.
NO BIG SURPRISE
It is no accident that mobile payments have expanded so fast in China.
According to a report by eMarketer, China’s lack of a credit card culture has fueled mobile payments, especially in small cities and underdeveloped areas.
In a remote mountain village of central China’s Hunan Province, one can easily buy a chicken or groceries by scanning a QR code.
The Payment and Clearing Association of China said in a report that mobile payment users in small towns and the countryside account for half of the total in China. The percentage of mobile payment users in the countryside is even higher than in provincial capitals.
“Mobile payment has become the norm and companies and brands cannot afford to ignore that fact,” said Li.
WeChat Pay has recruited several million offline vendors. Alipay has announced that 10 million brick-and-mortar shops have signed up for their cashless life promotion.
Mobile payment has also helped improve the outdated, time-consuming services at government offices and public sectors.
Statistics from WeChat showed that over 300 cities have public service platforms that accept WeChat payments.
The Chinese government is obliged to maintain a fair market environment and support mobile payments, said Pan Helin, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Fiscal Sciences.
However, the seeming panacea for payment transactions has also raised concerns.
Digital payment enables merchants to receive detailed information about consumers, including their phone numbers and email addresses, compared with traditional credit and debit cards, which mainly involve purchase receipts.
“I use mobile payments a lot in China, but I am quite concerned about my privacy,” said Li Xinyu, a student from the Republic of Korea at Tsinghua University. “I am afraid my personal information might be leaked.”
Only a small amount of money, about 1,000 to 2,000 yuan is usually stored in his Alipay account, Li added.
“Maybe a credit card is safer. Alipay or WeChat is more convenient, but I am more confident in the use of my credit card because it rarely goes wrong. If the battery in my smart phone dies or there is no wifi, I cannot use Alipay or WeChat,” Primiceri said.
Although the mobile payment is expanding overseas, tour guide Zhao Kun said that some tourists, especially older ones, worry about the safety of paying via Alipay and WeChat when traveling abroad, despite the rising popularity of mobile payment in most North American and Southeast Asian countries.
(Xuan Liqi, Ma Yujie, Zhang Xuan and Ye Qian also contributed to this story)