China buyers go virtually cashless

  • Opinion
  • Friday, 15 Jan 2016

Modern marvels: Consumers in China can purchase movie tickets and choose their preferred seats using mobile payment apps such as WeChat Wallet.

MOBILE payment is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in China, with cashless transactions replacing credit cards and cold, hard cash.

For this reason, leaving home without a wallet does not make one feel as insecure and edgy as not having a cellphone in the pocket.

Spending a day in the Chinese capital of Beijing without actual cash is possible.

With my smartphone that has several essential apps installed, I began my cashless day by ordering a taxi on a ride-hailing app just before stepping out into the chilly winter morning.

A cab driver soon accepted my request and headed in my direction to pick me up.

When I reached my destination, a commercial hub in the Dongcheng district, I paid for the cost of my ride (36 yuan or RM24) with just a few taps on my phone and the payment was immediately reflected on the driver’s phone.

After meeting up with my interviewee, we settled down at a cafe to have the conversation over a cuppa.

She graciously offered to pick up the tab – electronically – by using her mobile phone to scan the outlet’s QR code pasted on the table.

“Okay, paid,” she said.

“Can I see the proof of transaction, just to be sure?” the waitress asked.

On my way back to the office later, I made plans with a friend to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens that weekend.

We agreed on a time and place after texting back and forth, and then I browsed the “Movie Tickets” section in my WeChat Wallet to get the tickets and choose our seats. All done within two minutes. A total of 142 yuan (RM94.40) was deducted from my bank account, which is linked to the app.

Back at the office, I received an automated call from the telecommunications company that the landline bill was now overdue. Oops. I used Alibaba’s Alipay app this time by choosing the phone bill option under the “Utilities” section. Other choices include electricity, water, heating and cable TV fees.

For electricity, Beijing practises a prepaid system – a source of constant worry at the back of my mind, as a power blackout could happen should I forget to top up the smart card at the bank before the balance runs out.

The State Grid launched an official mobile app called “Palmtop Electricity” in 2014 for users to check their real-time balance and buy electricity on the go.

Unfortunately, the meters of this office building have not been upgraded so I could not try the e-payment method yet.

At 3pm, a deliveryman for an international express mail service provider showed up at my door to collect a parcel. I did not have the exact amount of cash to pay for the courier fare and he did not have change.

“Why don’t you add me on WeChat and then transfer 180 yuan (RM119.70) to me on the app?” he suggested.

Later that evening, I met up with a group of friends for dinner. One of us paid the bill and the rest whipped out our phones – instead of wallets – to pay him back.

We didn’t even have to do the math; there is a “Go Dutch” function in Wechat Wallet designed to do just that. It sends a link to all those in attendance or creates a QR code for us to scan and pay.

After we said our goodbyes, I popped into a convenience store nearby to buy a can of soda. I scanned the QR code on the counter with my WeChat, keyed in the total (6.50 yuan or RM4.30) and hit pay. I waited for the cash register to beep before pulling the ring tab.

These popular digital wallets come in handy in many other instances. Tencent’s WeChat Wallet allows users to search for meal delivery and restaurant deals, purchase rail and flight tickets, and even invest their money in funds.

Alipay also has similar functions but since WeChat Wallet is embedded within the WeChat messaging app, which everyone uses, it is a practical option most of the time.

WeChat’s “Lucky Money” function is also wildly popular, with users sharing and grabbing virtual red packets in chat groups.

Its “Weidian” (WeChat Shop) adds another dimension to its functions and understandably, all links leading to its rival, Alibaba’s shopping site Taobao, are blocked on WeChat.

Reports say that 60% of WeChat’s 650 million monthly active users have activated the payment function.

Alipay and WeChat Wallet, which rolled out their in-store payments in 2011 and 2014 respectively, will soon face competition from Apple Pay.

Apple Inc announced last month that it would collaborate with China’s UnionPay, a state-owned bank card issuer, to launch its mobile payment service this year.

By the look of things, the growth of mobile payment and e-commerce in China will make cashless transactions more and more appealing for consumers in China.

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Opinion , Tho Xin Yi , columnist


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