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Don’t Even Try Paying With Cash in China

“It’s hard for those of us who live outside of China to grasp how paying for everything has gone digital in the country,” writes the New York Times, introducing a Q&A with technology reporter Ray Zhong (who used to live in Beijing):

Most businesses there, from the fanciest hotels to roadside fruit stands, display a QR code — a type of bar code — that people scan with a smartphone camera to pay with China’s dominant digital payment apps, Alipay and WeChat. Paying by app is so much the norm that taxi drivers might curse at you for handing them cash…

Ray: Credit cards were never prevalent in China. The country skipped over a generation of finance and went straight to smartphone-based digital payments.

And the apps are simple for businesses. If a business can get a printout of a QR code, it can get paid by app. They don’t need special machines like businesses do to accept credit cards or many mobile payments like Apple Pay, which are essentially digital wallets of bank cards, while Alipay and WeChat are more pure digital payments… China has a stodgy, state-dominated banking system. These apps have allowed small businesses to connect to modern financial infrastructure easily.

I know paying with a credit card isn’t tremendously difficult, but making it a fraction easier to buy stuff has enabled different kinds of commerce. You probably wouldn’t buy something on Instagram for 50 cents with your credit card, but people in China buy digital books one chapter at a time.

What are the downsides?

Ray: Imagine if powerful tech companies like Google knew everything you’ve purchased in your entire life. That’s one. There are also concerns that Alipay and WeChat are so dominant that no one can compete with them.

Yet towards the end of the interview, the reporter concedes that Alipay and WeChat were “developed for China’s specific needs. I’m not convinced similar QR-code-based digital payment systems will catch on elsewhere. Maybe in India.”