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People in China have been paying cash for things for thousands of years, long before other civilizations did so. But now, increasingly, they are paying with their cellphones. NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us for a swipe at one of China's cashless cities.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A chef whips up a plate of noodles at a restaurant in East China's Hangzhou city. Hangzhou is the home of Alibaba, the world's largest online-shopping platform. Their mobile-payment app is called Alipay. The restaurant boss here, Ma Zhiguo, says about half of his customers pay for their meals with their cellphones. And he uses his to pay most of the time, too.
MA ZHIGUO: (Through interpreter) I don't have to worry about getting counterfeit money or having to make change. When I go out, I don't have to worry about losing my money or getting robbed.
KUHN: Think I'll give this a try myself. Scan QR code. Payment successful. How about that? Paid for my plate of noodles.
It's not hard to get around Hangzhou these days with just a smartphone loaded with Alipay or its rival, WeChat Pay, which is tied to WeChat, China's biggest social-messaging platform. You can ride the buses and subways with it.
AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Chinese).
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KUHN: You can buff up your karma by donating to a Buddhist temple with it.
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KUHN: You can even donate to buskers...
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KUHN: ...Like this woman, performing for spare change or for a scan of her QR code. By one estimate, Chinese spent $5.5 trillion through mobile-payment platforms last year, about 50 times the amount in the U.S. And that's in a country where a couple of decades ago, it wasn't even clear that credit cards were going to catch on. Cheng Lian, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argues that this was a cultural problem.
CHENG LIAN: (Through interpreter) Traditionally, Chinese people didn't want credit cards because they didn't want to owe anyone money.
KUHN: Lin Guangyu is a manager at the financial services arm of Alibaba. He says that at the heart of the problem was a lack of trust in Chinese society. And the solution, he said, was to link people's smartphones to their debit card, so nobody owes anyone anything.
LIN GUANGYU: (Through interpreter) When we created Alipay in 2003, we did it to resolve the issue of trust between people. And by resolving the issue of trust, we've also resolved the issue of payment.
KUHN: Alibaba also runs a credit-rating agency, which rates people's trustworthiness based on their shopping history. It also runs an online bank, which extends commercial loans to those with good credit history. But Cheng Lian says he has doubts about all this.
CHENG: (Through interpreter) We think that by analyzing such big data, we can make an accurate assessment of a person's character, but this has not proven.
KUHN: What could possibly go wrong? A lot, says Cheng. People could game the system. Others who don't use online payments could be marginalized. And governments and corporations could gain too much power to invade people's privacy. For the moment, though, Cheng notes, there's not much debate in Chinese society about these developments. And most folks don't seem too concerned.
CHENG: (Through interpreter) Folks at the bottom of society feel that what's important is getting enough to eat and making money. They don't see matters of privacy as so important.
KUHN: It's certainly not a debate, Cheng adds, the Chinese government wants to encourage. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hangzhou.
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