China and its mobile payments show us what it’s like to live in a future without cash, and not everything is as nice as it seems.

If you use your mobile phone or smart watch to pay for your purchases you will surely be amazed at how comfortable and easy that process becomes. In China they have been living for years in the future in that sense, because there the difficult thing is precisely to pay in cash, and although some may believe that this is the next logical step of our way of using money, there are problems with that splendid future.

Photo: Clay Banks
Photo: Clay Banks

The first to experience it are the millions of tourists who visit China every year. In recent times there have been more and more complaints revealing that China’s obsession with mobile payments has turned this experience into torture for tourists, who in some cases cannot even access these mobile payment systems because for many of them it is mandatory to have a current account in a bank in China.

It was told a few days ago in The Wall Street Journal: Alex Lee went on vacation to China with his family, and when he went to pay for a massage at a spa in Hangzhou he offered his credit card, which he managed to use in the end with a card reader very different from the one he knew and which the receptionist had to teach him how to use.

Another tourist, Susanna Sjogren, could barely afford a bottle of water or a taxi ride with money: the taxi driver only accepted cash when she agreed to give him a generous tip because she could only give him the change for his ticket through WeChat Pay. As she herself said, “ten years ago everything was paid in cash. Now you pay everything with WeChat. I’m getting used to being a dinosaur in China.

The truth is that both WeChat Pay and Alipay have become two of the omnipresent mobile payment systems in China, a country obsessed with these systems and with the QR codes that even beggars use on the street to give them alms through the mobile.

Millions of tourists are suddenly affected by a payment system that not only makes life difficult for those tourists, but also makes it difficult for Chinese citizens less familiar with the technology. Older people, for example, are protesting against this change to this society in which mobile payments dominate everything.

Even credit cards are not the salvation in such cases. This model of mobile payments has implications for privacy, surveillance or taxes, but it also blocks visitors from outside and citizens from inside if they do not stick to the Chinese applications that work: Google is blocked in China, Uber has surrendered to Didi and many others also operate on a limited basis.

The People’s Bank of China has declared it illegal for businesses not to accept cash to try to support those affected by the problem, and Tencent even announced a few days ago a pilot program to open WeChat Pay to foreigners, something that is increasingly important bearing in mind that you cannot open an account in that service without associating it with a current account in a Chinese bank.

javier-pastor Javier Pastor