Why ker-ching! has become bleep! in China’s cities. Joshua Howey discovers the future for buying a sandwich in the street.
As I stepped off the bus and onto the noisy and congested streets of inner city Hangzhou, a wave of searing mid-summer heat welcomed me to the city that would play host to my yearlong language exchange. Sandwiched by the rush of the crowd behind me and the clamour of the men offering lifts in front of me, I pushed past, dragging my suitcases with me, determined not be swindled on my first day, and took to the end of the street to find a taxi with a meter. Others did the same, but were quickly met with taxis they had prearranged somehow. I was the only person actually looking for one.
When the crowd was long-cleared, I was left jet-lagged and dehydrated, with a growing anxiety. After some 40 minutes waiting, not one vacant taxi had appeared on the busy eight-lane avenue in front of me. I had a chance to admire the towering urban landscape of the city that had been chosen by the Communist Party to host the G20 Summit, which had concluded a few days earlier. Contrary to the stories of the Beijing Olympics, the sky was not abnormally clear or blue, but instead, there was thick, grey smog engulfing the skyline and exacerbating the region’s prevalent relentless humidity. But in similarity with post-Olympic Beijing, it seemed that I had just arrived in a city along with half of its returning populace. While, under better circumstances, this may have been an interesting to watch, what it crucially meant for me at the time was that everyone returning, also needed a taxi.
After still more waiting I was approached by a young woman, who, I assumed, had noticed my efforts, and with typical Chinese courtesy, felt compelled to assist a visiting guest of the Middle Kingdom. As a student of Mandarin at school and currently as part of my degree, the conversation flowed fairly well as I managed to explain my situation. She explained that in Hangzhou it was “too hard” to hail a taxi on the street, and that “everyone uses ‘didi’ now.” She tapped a button on her phone and wished me well as she headed off. A taxi pulled up within seconds.
On arrival at my Soviet-style, brutalist dormitory block, I was greeted by two women sat at a makeshift wooden desk scattered with papers. After registering I went to my room. It soon became clear that it lacked some basic amenities. Like light bulbs. I returned downstairs to ask the ladies if there was a shop close by where I could buy the stuff I needed. One of the women laughed. “There are shops, but they are too far away and too expensive. To buy these things you should just use ‘Taobao’, everyone uses ‘Taobao,” she explained. He colleague chimed in as if flowing a advertisement script: “Yes, you can find nearly anything, and they will deliver it to the dorm.” I thanked them for their help and went outside to look around campus.
Before arriving, I had read that my campus (one of seven), covering almost 1 million square metres, was home to some 16,000 students, and even had its own high street of shops and restaurants. From walking around, it became clear that G20 had delayed the arrival of most students, which had resulted in local businesses remaining shut. I did, however, come across a street vendor selling sticky rice and ordered a portion. As I pulled out my wallet to pay the vendor tutted and said, “No cash, only Alipay.”
“No cash? I don’t understand?” I replied. The vendor was as bemused as I. He pointed to a barcode on an item and said: “Yes, Alipay, you have it surely? All the students use it… no one carries cash anymore.”
I soon came to realise that this street vendor alone reflected the long-established means of doing business in Hangzhou. Cash is frowned upon in a city that has long taken e-commerce for granted. The apps recommended by my taxi saviour, the receptionists and the street vendor – didi chuxing, Taobao and Alipay – dominate the lives of Hangzhou’s citizens. In fact they are arguably as essential to life as food and water because many citizens have their weekly groceries and water containers delivered through Taobao. When visiting another city they can use didi chuxing to hire a car from the airport, or just share a taxi fare with someone else. Using Alipay, people can (most do) pay the rent and utility bills for their apartment. They may also hire a cleaner or a nanny, and rate their services on their respective Alipay profiles. During lunchtime, the street is filled with ebikes making deliveries to office workers who, at the tap of a button, have pre-arranged their meals to arrive at an exact time and location.
It may or may not surprise you then, to learn that all three of these apps are owned and maintained by e-commerce giant, Alibaba Group. This is the same company that overtook the Agricultural Bank of China as the largest IPO in history, at US$ 25 billion, in 2014.
One statistic arguably conveys the company’s enormous influence over China’s e-commerce market: on the latest promotional “Singles Day”, where retailers and sellers heavily discount their prices in tandem for 24 hours, sales reached US$ 5bn in the first hour alone. I bought a very warm Adidas-branded winter coat on Taobao for just £18.
When I saw the news that founder and chairman of Alibaba, Jack Ma, had visited Trump Tower, I wondered whether this was more than just a PR stunt. Ma’s pledge to help create 1 million US jobs, by enabling small businesses to sell goods on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform, seemed the perfect sound bite for Trump’s incoming administration. And perhaps, most crucially, the meeting seemed to serve as an effective precursor to Xi Jinping’s articulate defence of globalisation and free trade, during his unprecedented speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a week or so later. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come with China picking up the banner for free trade. In the wake of Brexit and Trump’s protectionism, it may very well be that China is both ready and willing to play a greater role in leading global free trade.
Personally, I can only look forward to one day using my phone to scan the barcode on a sandwich from a London street vendor.