Financial mobile infrastructure has been surging around the world. In Kenya and Ethiopia, local mobile network technology developed much faster than improvements to credit cards, banking, and even personal safety (cash muggings, etc.) So in some sense it’s not a surprise that China has also taken to mobile transactions, but the reasons are not entirely the same. Over at Logic, Chenxin Jiang wrote about this shift and what it tell us about the changing landscape in the People’s Republic.
The shift in focus to homegrown digital innovation and mobile technology suggests a change in the government’s priorities. These days, China hardly cares to impress the outside world with its rapid pace of development and enlightened policies. Rather, it is building a new, parallel world, a digital infrastructure that will fully capture its growing domestic market while permitting an impressive degree of social control in Chinese cities.
And more to the point of government surveillance:
Mobile technology is increasingly serving as the vehicle for a sophisticated national surveillance system that’s deeply intertwined with all kinds of necessary everyday transactions. If your phone knows where you got out of a cab and with whom you split the bill for lunch, then the Chinese government knows too.
The other angle of this is that China is building a sustainable technological and financial ecosystem, separate from and largely disregarding the existing global one.
Over the past decade, China has systematically blackballed foreign apps. Didi Chuxing bought Uber’s China operations in 2016; Google, Facebook, and other US-based platforms have long been banned (though Google is reportedly planning a comeback). But with the growing ubiquity of mobile payments in daily life, China may also be excluding foreign users from its domestic platforms. Thus far, the major payment apps haven’t made significant efforts to reach potential users who are not holders of Chinese bank accounts, such as the tens of millions of foreign tourists who visit China each year, or the mostly rural domestic unbanked population.
While it’s worthwhile to dwell on the surveillance component of this, the economic one is equally peculiar. China’s GDP growth is regularly 3-4 times that of the U.S. and it has a population of ~1.4 billion, making the People’s Republic the most populated country with over 18% of all humans alive today. It doesn’t need to play by U.S. and European terms to succeed — it can focus on its domestic market and do well.
This may change of course, China’s exports are shipped all over the world, and it won’t be surprising to see its financial and tech sectors taking after its manufacturing one. For now, read about the current situation here.