In China, everything can be paid without cash changing hands. And I mean everything.
Doesn’t sound like something you would connect to a country where Facebook, YouTube and Google aren’t allowed behind the Great Firewall, but a cashless revolution has been going on, several years in the making.
And it’s not just your 7-11s or Starbucks that accepts payment with your smartphone - you can also pay for groceries at the morning market, sundry store, taxis and even roadside beggars (we’re not kidding about the last one, just Google for beggars with QR codes and you’ll see what I mean)
Huawei took Stuff to China to experience a cashless society firsthand, and while I initially thought it might be difficult, it’s easier than you think even if you don’t speak Mandarin. Way easier.
Setup is easy, if your credit card is ready
Huawei provided me with a Huawei P10 (in a cool Ceramic White colour, no less), and sent 150RMB via the angbao feature on WeChat. As new users from another country, all we had to do to configure our phones for the cashless experience was enter our credit card details, and we’re set. You can still use your WeChat account you made back home. A new option called “Wallet” appears in your settings, where you can see your preloaded balance.
A few of us were unable to make it work, so I suggest checking with your bank if your card can be used overseas. Plus, I’m not quite sure what happens if the balance is insufficient to pay, but I assume they will deduct from your credit card if your balance runs out.
Now for the good part. There are a few ways to pay a vendor (or just about anybody) in China. In stores, you will usually open your “Wallet”, tap on “Money” and display the QR code for paying vendors. A quick scan from the vendor, and that new ginger Coca-Cola is yours to try.
The other method is to scan the vendor’s QR code (by pressing + on the top right of the WeChat screen). You’ll then be asked to enter the amount, and a 6-digit PIN that you would have setup when entering your credit card details earlier.
I tried paying cashless everywhere. It works at convenience stores, getting a frappe at Starbucks, buying a snack at a packed food stall and paying for a meal at a fancy restaurant - the waiter brings your bill with a QR code to scan, and gives you an odd look when you want to pay for your meal with cash.
And thankfully it was easy to open my phone with the quick fingerprint sensor on the Huawei P10, which actually works with my sweaty palms. The only way it would be faster is if I could open WeChat pay from the lock screen.
Passing the buck around
There’s also an option to receive money from people that aren’t in your friend list, split billing and mass angbao recieving (my personal favourite that we didn’t try).’
It’s really easy to pass money - the receiver just pulls out their QR code from “Wallet” > “Recieve money via QR code” and the sender scans the code. Enter the amount, the 6-digit PIN and you’re set. And just for kicks, we tried sending money back and forth many times, and didn’t incur any charges for doing so.
Ridesharing just as easy
On my last full day in Beijing, I decided to try DiDi, China’s answer (and the app that defeated) Uber. There’s an English version available for international users, but you’ll need a China telephone number to get authenticated.
Once you secured your ride, the driver will give you a call to make sure you’re at the location you set. The experience is a little worrisome especially for me who doesn’t understand a lick of Chinese - I had help in the hotel, but I was on my own when trying to get back. I decided to send pictures of my location to help my driver.
Another thing that’s different was the amount shown on screen, it’s only an estimation. Expect higher prices as the traffic in Beijing is terrible.
On the first ride to my destination, I paid by scanning the QR code given to me by the driver. On the ride back, the driver had to rush - but an option to pay using several payment options (credit card, WeChat etc) appeared in the app to pay.
No complicated security, no worries
In all the payment instances, you’ll notice that there was no complicated authentication surrounding WeChat pay. No fingerprint scan like Apple Pay, or iris scanning like you would on Samsung Pay. A simple 6-digit PIN suffices.
Perhaps it’s this ease of use that makes cashless payment so widespread, that makes even the smallest stores have to start accepting payment because nobody brings cash out anymore.
Can this work in Malaysia?
We have the facilities ready - terminals that accept Visa PayWave, Maybank and CIMB offering NFC payments (the latter also has a Plug n Pay easy mobile point of sale system) as well as Samsung Pay entering the market. But even with all this in place, you can only expect to go cashless at shopping malls, but even then you still have to pay the parking ticket with real money if you don't want to spend a little extra to use the Touch n Go. Not even convenience stores in our country supports cashless payments, unlike our neighbours.
Either margins are too tight for the smaller vendors to introduce cashless terminals, or there's a general reluctance surrounding the idea. For something to happen, there probably has to be a nationwide rollout like GST to get all Malaysians onboard. Until then, I'll keep going cashless whenever possible and hope in the future my local mamak to accept cashless payment for my roti canai.