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No Cash, No Card, No Problem
The use of mobile devices to pay for goods and services is transforming Chinese society
By Bryan Michael Galvan | NO. 10 MARCH 10, 2016

A customer uses WeChat Wallet to pay for a purchase at a convenience store in Beijing (WEI YAO)

China is on the leading edge of creating a cashless society powered by mobile electronic payment services. Mobile technology is changing the nature of money and how it is being used in China, from simple tasks such as purchasing small items, to paying utilities and even investing in the stock market.

There are more people using their smartphones to pay for goods and services in China than the entirety of the United States' population, according to research from the China Internet Network Information Center. The study stated that 358 million Chinese were using applications from leading mobile payments platforms such as the e-commerce behemoth Alibaba's Alipay and Tencent's WeChat Wallet by the end of 2015.

Zheng Xuwen, 22, works in Beijing's finance industry and claimed that mobile e-payment is more convenient compared to cards or cash. "Sometimes when I buy things I just need to open my phone," said Zheng in an interview with Beijing Review . "I don't actually need to bring any money with me now, especially since I worry about losing it."

The rules of attraction 

The widespread nature of the e-payment system in China and its ease of use have been attributed to campaigns that have leapfrogged conventional payment systems. Hao Zhujing, an analyst at Beijing-based Internet consultancy Analysys International told Beijing Review  about some of the methods used by these corporations.

"Both Alipay and WeChat Wallet have cultivated a large number of users by offering subsidies to customers who use their payment services to pay for taxis, or discounts to those who use the tools to shop at department stores and supermarkets," he explained. "Customers who have gotten used to mobile payment tools will stimulate more business operators to adopt such tools."

According to the research firm, in 2015, Chinese used their smartphones to send payments and transfers totaling an estimated 16.4 trillion yuan ($2.5 trillion). This figure was double the amount logged in 2014, and over 12 times 2013's level.

More than 200 companies are vying for their share of the lucrative and fast-growing market, of which Alibaba dominated with about 73 percent of the total, while Tencent ranked second place at an estimated 14 percent, based on Analysys' calculations.

Even so, the success of the mobile e-payment market in China is offset by its American counterparts'—led by Apple Pay and Google Wallet—anemic performance. According to a survey on U.S. mobile payments in December 2015, about 20 percent of iPhone 6 owners reported having used the Apple Pay service more than once, down from 22 percent last spring.

The survey, conducted by First Annapolis Consulting, Inc., outlined that the service's usage was in decline, and stated that "among those that have adopted Apple Pay, only 15 percent say they use it regularly or frequently (i.e., more than once per month), compared to 19 percent in the spring survey."

Against that backdrop, Apple launched its Apple Pay service in China on February 18. Apple has partnered with China's UnionPay in a bid to rake in more earnings from China, its second largest market by revenue.

Jennifer Bailey, Apple Pay's Vice President, told Reuters in an interview, "We think China could be our largest Apple Pay market."

In a response to Apple's attempt to pry ensconced users away from domestic mobile e-payment services, a public relations manager from Alipay who preferred to remain anonymous, told Beijing Review  that "I don't think we should do anything in particular to confront competition from Apple Pay... I don't think it is a threat to us."

Security concerns 

Despite which smartphone or tablet consumers use, or which company they may use for mobile e-payments, fraud and identity theft are a concern for Chinese citizens.

Xiao Mengqi, 21, frequently uses Alipay and WeChat Wallet, but said that she worries about losing her phone and having her identity stolen, or having her information hacked. In an interview with Beijing Review , she claimed to have seen on Weibo—a popular microblogging site—a number of horror stories pertaining to users losing money after using similar services.

Hao Zhujing, from Analysys, stated that there are risks involving the leakage of users' information and safety of users' money when using mobile e-payment services. Security came into greater scrutiny as a report from Qihoo 360, a Chinese Internet security company, recently outlined that more than 40 percent of websites in China were exposed to vulnerabilities in 2015. An article from Xinhua News Agency stated that this had led to hacker attacks as well as personal information leaks.

Meanwhile, Apple is winning accolades from privacy advocates as it defends the rights of customers' privacy when it comes to information stored on their phones, even under extraordinary circumstances.

In the United States, Apple is currently embroiled in an unprecedentedly high-profile legal battle as it rejects demands from the U.S. Government to help the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) hack into an iPhone. The phone in question was owned by one of the suspected terrorists behind the San Bernardino shootings in California, which left 14 dead on December 2 last year.

Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, wrote an open letter on February 16 stating that: "The FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software—which does not exist today—would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession."

Despite rebuking the American Government's request, according to an article from The Beijing News  on January 21, 2015, Apple was not as opposed to the Chinese Government's security requirements.

When asked by Beijing Review , an Apple spokesperson did not comment on the nature of the Chinese security requirements. Nonetheless, the company's privacy statement emphasized that "Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a 'backdoor' in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed any government access to our servers. And we never will."

Ultimately, it is up to the customers to decide which product they deem the safest, though the implementation of unique features will play a key role in the success and development of these services.

Growth opportunities 

The expansion of these mobile e-payment services has not only taken a central role in a business sense, but also in a cultural manner.

During the traditional Lunar New Year, for example, it is customary to give out hongbaos—

red envelopes containing lucky money—to family members. But since 2014, when WeChat first launched its digital hongbao service, the popularity of the feature has exploded. Based on figures released by Tencent, the number of red envelopes sent and received throughout the 2016 Lunar New Year holiday, which lasted from February 7 to 13, totaled 32.1 billion, a significant increase from last year.

Still, there are challenges ahead for the expansion of mobile e-payment services. "The Internet is developing rapidly," said the Alipay PR manager, commenting on obstacles his company faces. "Therefore the most challenging part for us is whether we can adapt to the changes and make adjustments accordingly."

Another common difficulty that these services are tackling is their expansion into brick-and-mortar stores that have yet to adopt these services.

Zheng owns a small food stall near a busy street intersection in Beijing. She told Beijing Review  that her store only accepts cash payments. "I don't know how to use Alipay or WeChat Wallet for payment. I'll still use cash in the future because it is easier."

The Alipay PR manager claimed that services need to be more than just a payment tool in order to attract more brick-and-mortar stores such as Zheng's. "These platforms will guide customers to befriend the store on Alipay and become the store's members."

The PR manager's comments highlighted the social nature of these services that set them apart from conventional payment methods such as cash or credit. The success of mobile e-payment platforms in China can be attributed to Chinese users' ability to intertwine business with social networking, thereby altering the way they use money.

Regardless of what the future of mobile e-payment may involve, for better or for worse, cashless societies are bound to become more prominent.

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

Comments to yushujun@bjreview.com

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