In some ways China is stuck in the past. In all others it’s hurtling towards the future.
Nowhere on earth does the temperature seem to change quicker than in Beijing. Seasons are stark and we northerners eyeball the sky anxiously. Some years, there is no spring or autumn – winter simply switches straight to summer. The worst time to be here is the week before Chinese New Year, which falls on January 25th this year. That’s when the temperature drops to its lowest and the skin on your hands gets so cracked it resembles a lizard’s claw.
One thing I’ve yet to get used to in Europe is how warm it is in your homes no matter what the time of year - and how you complain of the cold while dancing about in just a t-shirt. In China, I have central heating – it’s central as in turned on and off by somebody at boiler house headquarters and there’s only one setting. Given that heat rises, on the coldest nights, my flat - built in the 80s - feels like an ice cellar.
Some years the chill lingers long after the central heating is turned off and we have nothing to do but shudder at the sight of snowflakes. But while our structural plumbing is failing fast - and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it unless we want to rip the whole thing out and start again - in all other senses technology is transforming our lives. This is played out across the whole country, and particularly in cities like Beijing and Shanghai - where you blink a couple of times and some new phenomenon captures your attention.
I remember in 2017, when I returned after three months abroad and found the streets populated by a new species: bikes. I’ve always ridden but the capital had long forfeited its trusty two-wheelers for speedier transportation. Scooters, fast cars, super-fast bullet trains, and drones symbolised the new China. But suddenly street corners were filled with MoBikes, Ofos and the young migrant men who sat on them because there were only so many park benches to go round. They didn’t even pretend to peddle - even though each bike was equipped with an innovative GPS tracking system produced in a tech war worth billions.
The bike craze didn’t last. Soon all that was left were disfigured frames that were strewn about almost everywhere. The bikes lived short lives and ended up as trash.
That was then and this is now.
You might think this sounds concerning but the Chinese aren’t spooked. The country is modernising too fast for us to ask questions.
A year is a lifetime in Chinese technology. Last summer, the new vogue was for the self-driving vending machines which roam my local park. They are about four feet tall, move at tortoise pace and look like mini camper vans. You walk up to them and they stop. They’re cashless of course - since coins are dying out. You have to get out your phone to scan a unique and ever-changing QR code that allows you to choose what you want, pay, and then instantly your Pepsi drops.
It’s this code that truly opens doors in China. It’s how you access the menu at restaurants, it’s how you pay the taxi driver for taking you home. Since everyone has their own code it unlocks the business potential in everyone. What facilitates all this is WeChat - a mega app that combines all the social functions of WhatsApp, Facebook and ApplePay - and also allows you to book cinema tickets, order Nando’s, book doctor’s appointments and even pay your heating bills - all directly with the provider without having to download another app or register another account ever again.
You might think this sounds concerning but the Chinese aren’t spooked. The country is modernising too fast for us to ask questions. In Guangzhou I wandered into a 7/11 convenience store where I had the option of paying with WeChat or using only my face. Standing there, embarrassed, I just couldn’t understand how it worked, and felt too scared to look directly into the camera. I kept asking the lady at the till what my face was being verified against. Hers said it all: why does it matter - if it works?
In the West, Apple’s latest phones now require facial ID but I hadn’t registered my cheeks and eyebrows anywhere - so for days I was puzzled as to how I could pay for pork buns in this way. I figured out that in China your mobile phone number is linked to your photo ID and bank accounts, which means your face is now effectively your wallet - should you choose to use it.
Back in Beijing, I went to a food hall selling everything from hotpot to bubble tea to dim sum, and every stall was equipped with these facial-scanners. While most customers still used the QR code, occasionally one of them would smile at their reflection leading to a ping and a tick that shows they paid the machine.
It’s much like how the automatic passport facial scanner barriers work at airports, except in that case you’re obliged by law to participate - in China you do so out of thirst and hunger. One day soon, the iPhone will be gone and everyone’s face will have to be insured.
Scary? Yes. But is anything going to stop it? No. Payment by face will take off long before anyone sorts the heating out.