I talked earlier about the homogenization of the world as we are all become globally connected, seeking global brands using a global language through global platforms. I truly believe that will happen, as it’s the natural outcome of the fourth age of humanity where we become digital humans, but there’s a long way to go. You only have to experience countries emerging from the darkness of disconnectedness to know this. There are many, but they are changing fast. I realised this during my latest trip to China.
I first came to China in 1997. It was a very different place. I remember the lack of customer focus, the lack of technology infrastructure, the lack of well, most things. We visited the head office of the Bank of China in Beijing who took great pride in telling us that they had 300,000 staff … in just that one main building. What do they all do I wondered? I was told admin.
At this time, most Chinese people lived in poverty, had zero access to bank services, no credit or debit cards and no hope. How things have changed in twenty years. Today, China has leapfrogged the world and created an infrastructure for the internet mobile age second-to-none. As I walk around China today, I am the foreigner. I present my card for payment, and the people at the kiosks look at me in bemusement. They shout at me stuff in Chinese that I think translates to: where’s your mobile?
The only way to pay in most Chinese stores in second cities – those that are not Tier 1 like Beijing or Shanghai, but Tier 2 like Hangzhou or Nanjing – is by mobile or cash. But cash is also a problem as many of the domestic banks do not link to the international payment networks and will not give cash to foreign cards. I realised this as I tried my card with the Bank of Ningbo and Huaxin Bank. The ATM did the process but, at the final hurdle of giving out cash, said sorry but transaction failed.
I called my issuer who told me no transaction was presented to them for approval. It failed because the local banks just don’t connect.
So I’m a foreigner with no cash and cards that don’t work in a second tier Chinese city where no-one speaks English. That’s a tough call. I download Alipay in English to use on my phone and feel a sense of relief that this works. Alipay is accepted everywhere based upon a QR-code reading system. It’s clever, simple and it works. It works so well that no one uses cash anymore. They just walk around with their mobiles and show codes. These QR codes work from the smallest stores on the street serving noodles to the largest retailers in the malls offering high-end products.
Unfortunately, there is one gating factor for me signing on to Alipay. I have to show some ID, and that ID has to be Chinese, Korean, Hong Kong or Taiwanese. I’m English, so can’t register with any.
An Englishmen in China. Woah, I’m an alien, I’m an illegal alien. I’m an Englishman in China.
I know this will change. I know it because I see a lot of Chinglish already pervasively around the streets of the places I visit. Cool T-shirts saying things like Your Are Cool and signs in all the bars, coffee shops and restaurants in Chinese and English. The gradual merger of our feng chui will bring our cultures together to homogenize more over the next twenty years but, for now, I stand stunned by the transformation of an economy that, when I visited tweeny years ago, required bank tellers to take a test in their proficiency in using an abacus. How things have changed …