If you carry cash in China, you might be seen as “outdated.” From the smallest shops in Beijing to the seediest bars in Sanlitun, every vendor is moving away from cash and towards the future with apps like Tencent’s WeChat or Alibaba’s Alipay. Even if they still accept cash, paying with a wave of your phone is also an option. QR codes and a cashless world are the way of the future, at least in China.
Rhia Liu, who is an analyst for an organization that conducts research for Tencent known as China Tech Insights, commented, “The younger generation has never read a physical newspaper, and similarly in the future they’ll never use cash.” And indeed, the younger generation is all for the advent of this QR-code based payment system.
In March, results from a survey by the newspaper Beijing Youth Daily found that 70 percent of the internet users who responded believed that carrying cash wasn’t necessary. Some 710 million of China’s 1.35 billion citizens are internet users, and it won’t take long for the cashless trend to spread. Jamie Fullerton of Motherboard reports that analysts have estimated that within the next 5 to 13 years, cash in China will essentially be a relic of the past. But what is the cost of this “fast” and “easy” cashless culture that Chinese youth are raving about?
One of the most popular cashless payment apps is Tencent’s WeChat. The app made its debut in 2011 and introduced its payment feature in 2013. The data storing conducted by this app seems to not be a turn-off for its users, and the potential for “snooping authorities” is simply seen as part of the deal and is met with a surprising amount of acceptance. It seems that privacy may also go extinct as the march towards invasive technology continues on — and citizens are often willing participants, provided it makes life “easier” for them.
There are many concerns that surround the idea of a cashless future, but freedom, privacy and security are some of the top things threatened by the advent of a society that is without physical money.
“Little has been said about the major challenges that a cashless society brings. It infringes on people’s privacy. It can make life difficult in sparsely populated areas. It can make a society vulnerable and increasingly open to sophisticated Internet crimes.” Bjorn Eriksson, a former director of Interpol and the Swedish Police, reportedly explained. For example, during times of crisis, cash can become essential. If a natural disaster wipes out the power grid in a specific area, physical money is what people will turn to in order to meet their needs.
But cash isn’t only important in times of disaster; it’s also a key element of personal freedom. As Scott A. Shay explains in an article for CNBC, Mastercard and Visa banned users from making online-betting payments with their systems in 2010 — at the behest of the US government. Shay raises an important question: What is to stop the government from seizing control of our lives in other ways, especially as the digital age creates more and more access to personal information? It would not be a tremendous leap to go from that to preventing people with certain health conditions from buying certain products.
For example, the government might decide to ban people with cancer from purchasing cigarettes, or stop people who are diabetic from buying junk food. It may seem crazy, but in reality, what happened in 2010 has already set a precedent: The government can tell financial institutions what people are and are not allowed to do with their own money. In this way, a “cashless society” sets the stage for total government control over the population. While going cashless may seem “convenient,” it is important to remember that convenience never comes without a cost.