Cashless in China: Testing out digital wallets

At a market stall in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, customers can scan the QR code and pay for their meal through Alipay.

How far can one get without a wallet in Beijing? We put Alipay and WeChat’s digital wallets to the test, from breakfast to cocktails.

By Joseph Catanzaro

It’s morning in Beijing, China’s capital, and I’m hunting down breakfast on streets that are coming to life with foot traffic and scooters. I settle on a jianbing, a sort of Chinese breakfast wrap. A few minutes of chopping and sizzling later, the middle-aged woman at the roadside stall hands me my food. I reach for my wallet instinctively. It’s not there, and I have no money on me.

In much of the world, I’d now be in a somewhat embarrassing position, but not in China, where an increasing number of people – myself included – now intentionally leave their wallets at home.

“A scowling lady completes the sale by scanning a QR code on my phone... Even digital money can’t buy you love.”

The food vendor and I both whip out our smartphones and open up WeChat, China’s popular messaging app. She presents her phone’s screen and I scan a QR code displayed on it using my phone’s camera. I type in the cost of my breakfast and enter a personal pin code. Within seconds, our transaction is done. Welcome to 21st-century China, a nation that’s fast becoming a cashless economy.

ATMs in short supply

China may be home to almost 1.4 billion people, but it has only about 10 million point-of-sale (POS) machines and about 2.5 million ATMs. The digital wallet systems from Alipay and WeChat, backed by local m-commerce giants Alibaba and Tencent respectively, are fast filling the need for quick and easy transactions.

It begs the question, just how far can one now get without a wallet in Beijing? I decided to spend a day putting it to the test.

Simply scan and pay

I grab a coffee at a local cafe, scanning a QR code printed on a piece of paper near the register to pay via WeChat Wallet.

I want to test a convenience store, so I grab a soda water from a 7-Eleven. A scowling lady completes the sale by scanning a QR code on my phone with the store’s POS machine, but she’s still not smiling when it’s done. Even digital money can’t buy you love.

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I jump in a cab. The traffic is terrible, so during the slow trip I open up WeChat. I can do almost everything on the app, including paying utility bills and booking flights to somewhere exotic. I glance longingly at the flight booking function, but transfer some money I owe to a mate instead.

The taxi driver, who takes Alipay Wallet, drops me off and I get a quick hair cut. My digital wallet may be great insurance against leaving cash and cards at home, but paying for the trim with WeChat Wallet does nothing to save me from something that resembles a bowl hair cut, if that bowl had been made by the worst student in a school pottery class.

“Just because they take digital money doesn’t mean I actually have any spare to spend.”

I get my first strikeout at lunch, when I try and fail to buy some fruit from a roadside stall. Just down the road, though, a similar vendor whips out his phone and obliges.

I browse the racks at some clothing stores. The shops all use Alipay Wallet and WeChat Wallet, but I don’t buy anything. Just because they take digital money doesn’t mean I actually have any spare to spend.

Final win of the day

I meet up with my wife. We’re going to dinner at a restaurant I know takes WeChat payment, and then on to a cocktail bar where I’ve already thoroughly tested their capacity for mobile payment.

A Subway ad for the Alipay Wallet app. With more than 800 million Chinese accounts, it is already the biggest mobile payment processor in the world.The question is how to get there? It’s peak hour, so a cab is out. Using WeChat Wallet we can hire bicycles, but it’s winter and a little chilly for a ride.

We settle on taking the subway which, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t take mobile payment – and my subway card is out of credit. I’m ready to call the last step of the experiment a failure when my wife opens WeChat and holds my subway card up to the back of her latest model Xiaomi smartphone. A window instantly appears, which enables her to top up my card with her digital money.

It’s a final win for a day without a wallet, and a reminder that even in this emerging cashless world, one thing remains unchanged – using a digital wallet to pay for your stuff is great, but using someone else’s digital wallet to pay for your stuff is even better.

Read next: Apple pay attempts to revolutionise the way we use our phones again


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