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LONG LING, A GOVERNMENT official in Beijing, contributed “Diary: At the Temple,” in the London Review of Books, January 21, 2021. A vignette in her article encouraged me to learn about China’s transformation to a digital economy. Here are tidbits, the results of my Internet sleuthing.

Top-down Planning. In September 2019, Winston Ma Wenyan discussed in the World Economic Forum ”Why the Internet is Yesterday’s News in China’s Digital Leap Forward.”  He cited this as being part of Beijing’s push from the country’s Mobile Economy, 2014–2015, to the Digital Economy, 2017–2018, to its next phase, the Artificial Intelligence Digital Economy.

Image from World Economic Forum, September 16, 2019.

Singles Day: November 11. “For example,” Wenyan said, “yes, the 11 November (Singles Day) festival remains the world’s largest online shopping day, beating Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.” Wenyan noted the challenge of inventory, distribution, and delivery of numerous orders in such a short span of time.

Alibaba (sort of China’s Amazon/Google plus) is an example: “Alibaba’s logistics affiliate, Cainiao, has used AI techniques and GIS (Geographic Information System) to determine the fastest and most cost-effective delivery routes in a variety of complex road networks, including both rural villages and crowded urban areas.”

The QR Code. Shira Ovide wrote in The New York Times, October 27, 2020, “Don’t Even Try Paying Cash in China.” She said, “It’s hard for those of us who live outside of China to grasp how paying for everything has gone digital in the country. Most businesses there, from the fanciest hotels to roadside fruit stands, display a QR code— a type of bar code—that people scan with a smartphone camera to pay with China’s dominant digital payment apps, Alipay and WeChat. Paying by app is so much the norm that taxi drivers might curse at you for handing them cash.”

Image by Dani Choi for The New York Times, October 27, 2020.

Credit Cards—So 20th Century. Colleague Ray Zhong told Shira Ovide, “Credit cards were never prevalent in China. The country skipped over a generation of finance and went straight to smartphone-based digital payments.”

Similar jumps occurred in developing countries around the world with the advent of cell phones: Locales that never had land lines went directly to this advanced technology.

A Mobile-first Nation. Daxue Consulting writes about “Payment Methods in China: How China Became a Mobile-first Nation,” February 22, 2021: “Over the past few years, paying with mobile phone has become a daily gesture in China. According to a survey, in 2018 92% of people in China’s largest cities use Wechat Pay or Alipay as their main means of payment. The phenomenon is the same in rural areas: 47% of the rural population is reported to regularly use mobile payments in China.” 

Source: iiMedia, chart by Daxue Consulting.

Luddite that I am, I can probably total on both hands the number of times I’ve scanned a bar code for one thing or another. How about you? 

Downsides. Shira Ovide cites one of the evident downsides to this omniscient technology: “Imagine if powerful tech companies like Google knew everything you’ve purchased in your entire life.”

Gee, she sure got that right.

Daxue Consulting cites another downside: “According to a survey by China Unionpay, 98% of the respondents believe that mobile payment is safe. However, there were still 8% of them who experienced mobile payment fraud in 2020, and about 75% of the respondents had received scam messages.”

A scannable fake code covers the real QR code on a sharing bicycle. Image from Daxue Consulting, February 22, 2021.

 Scam messages and fake QR codes, like the one pictured above, are the main fraudulent method in China.

Long Ling’s LRB Vignette. In her temple visit, Long Ling consulted an old woman whose sign read “Stick Reading,” and in smaller characters, “Two yuan for each.” 

Two yuan is about 31¢.

Long Ling reported, “My good luck, the important opportunity, the answer to my prayers, would appear in two or three months.… I thanked the old woman. She pointed to a card in her basket printed with her WeChat and Alipay codes. I scanned it with my phone. ‘WeChat has received two yuan,’ a machine voice said.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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