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Hangzhou: Inside one of the world’s leading cashless cities

Business transactions even for simple things like vegetables in Hangzhou are cashless. All photos by Hudson Kuteesa.

As technology continues to revoutionalise the different aspects of life, one of the ways it is making an impact is how we transact business especially in buying commodities. More people are purchasing goods without paying hard cash.

Last year, news broke out that two men raided three convenience stores in the Chinese city of Hangzhou and merely got 1800 yuan (Rwf220,000) in cash. The thieves perhaps hoped to harvest more from the rich city stores, but this didn’t materialize. And this was because most of the business transactions in this city are cashless.


“Don’t they know that we all use mobile payments now? It won’t be easy to mug people for cash,” a story from China Daily (one of the country’s English newspapers) said in the aftermath of the robbery.


The news showed how popular mobile payments are in China. Using cash is becoming rare in China.


If you live in China, you don’t need to carry ATM cards or cash with you when you go out, as long as you have a smartphone. You can easily pay for cab fare, make purchases at street fruit stands, in restaurants or convenience stores without using cash.

Recent statistics show that Chinese third-party mobile payments volume in 2016 reached $8.4 trillion, something that makes China one of the world’s leading cashless countries.

Hangzhou is home to Alibaba Group Holding Limited, a Chinese multinational conglomerate specializing in e-commerce, mobile payments, retail, internet, Artificial Intelligence and technology. Founded in 1999, the company provides consumer-to-consumer, business-to-consumer and business-to-business sales services via web portals, as well as electronic payment services, shopping search engines and cloud computing services.

It owns and operates a diverse array of businesses around the world in numerous sectors.

In one of the restaurants that I went to called “intelligence restaurant,” you neither need to see a waiter, chef, nor anything like that to get served.

The brightly coloured, beautifully furnished restaurant has codes stuck over its different tables. It is these that the customers scan using their mobile phones and they can access the menu, make orders and get served.

Bell Wang, the International Communications Manager at Ant Financial, an affiliate company of Alibaba Group made a short demo video to show how the app functions.

“This is my Alipay App,” she says as she taps the screen of her phone. The app is a mobile payment platform designed by Alibaba Group, widely used in the city.

She opens it, and its home page presents her the option of scanning QR codes. She proceeds to scan the QR code on the restaurant table which gives her access to the menu, among other things. She feeds in the number of people that are going to eat in the restaurant, and then chooses the food. For demonstration, she is going to make an order just for one person: herself.  She chooses a certain type of tea, confirms payment, and then waits.

In less than three minutes, her drink is ready and the system sends her a message to alert her that it is already in one of the lockers, a few inches away from her table. She reaches out, opens the locker, still by scanning a QR code, gets her drink, and goes back to her seat.

Moments later, she demonstrates something else. She walks to a refrigerator near the entrance of the restaurant for some food. Here, she still scans a QR code to open the fridge, but this time, the story is more than just scanning. The story here is artificial intelligence. The system has the capacity to recognise what commodity she pulled out of the fridge, how many pieces, and then it charges due amount from her account.

Mobile payments are a wild fire in China. Bell says she hasn’t entered a restaurant in the city that does not accept mobile payment.

Vegetable stands, meat stands and stores for small things like toys can also sell through mobile payments. From the “intelligence restaurant,” I proceed to a market - an ordinary food and vegetable market. Many of the businesspersons that operate in this place transact business through mobile payments.

The market is littered withQR codes almost everywhere. A customer comes, buys something, scans the business code, and then taps the payment option that deducts money from his account.

Ms Zhang, 33, is one of the sellers in the market. She says out of 10 customers, she receives 6 or 7 that are using mobile payment. Ms Pan, another seller says she also gives around the same numbers.

China’s mobile payments are also going abroad. According to China Daily, Alipay and Wechat Pay have been widely accepted across Thailand, from small street vendors in Chiang Mai (a city in Thailand) to large duty free shops in Bangkok.

If you need to pay in any other currency, say British Pounds, US dollar, Japanese Yen, Canadian Dollar, Euro, or South Korean Won, you can also easily make the “exchange” with Apps.


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