I had the chance to visit China last week and tag along with the tail-end of a longer trip organized around various Makerspaces around the region. This is the first time in several years that I’ve spent a prolonged amount of time in the dense population areas of Beijing and Shanghai, and it was fascinating to watch the evolution that continues in this majority of Chinese life.
The most noticeable change from my perspective is that Beijing and Shanghai are effectively almost cashless. The use of Alipay and wechat pay are ubiquitous, to the point that you feel that you are creating an imposition to shop keepers by paying with cash. While funding your account on either of these services requires a chinese bank account (which itself requires a mainland cellphone number), the process can be short-circuited by making an unofficial exchange with someone willing to send you a personal transfer within the systems. It remains easy enough to find people at hostels, (as well as localbitcoins, I hear) who are willing to trade.
The systems themselves are fascinating to use. Payment to a merchant will automatically cause you to follow the merchants account, typically leading to messages about member cards and discounts. These messages seemed to only be pushed directly in response to a purchase, and weren’t overly intrusive. It seems to be the realization of the business-to-consumer engagement systems facebook and google have been struggling and so far failing to build in the US. Smaller vendors often operate directly as individuals – you type in how much money the bill is, and send it as a direct transfer to an account specified by the waiter or merchant.
This payment structure has resulted in a secondary industry of android-based devices dedicated to sales and scanning QR codes for these systems, as well as receipt printers that turn app orders into printed requests for food or similar.
Apart from the payment evolution, it is really interesting to watch China modernize. Life there now is much more comfortable from a western perspective than it has been in the past, with both a larger presence of foreigners visible and more english available to help navigate. Some distinctive characteristics remain, including a self-interested approach to queuing and different expectations of personal space. Prices in Shanghai have reached parity with those in the west, although cheaper options remain if you look for them.
In terms of Internet connectivity, I was surprised to find that connectivity remained quite similar to what I had experienced in the past. An SSH tunnel to a foreign server was sufficient to maintain email access while I was there, and disruptions I experienced seemed to be much more a function of over-loaded local networks than of more restrictions for international traffic. I talked with a couple different people who mentioned that Astrill continues to not be blocked, and seemed surprised that something so well known continues to operate without disruption.