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The digital divide: inclusion must not create exclusion

I have one slight concern as we go cashless, having experienced it myself. You cannot go cashless if it does not include everyone.

I had this experience in China. Arriving on a Sunday lunchtime at the Holiday Inn Express hotel, I successfully checked in and had a nice room with an empty fridge. Downstairs, being an Express, there was no restaurant or bar. So, I asked the check-in for directions to the nearest convenience store, and duly went down there and filled a basket with some food, fruit and drink. As I reached the checkout, everyone was holding up mobile phones with QR codes. I held out my MasterCard. The assistant gave me a disgusted look saying what is that? and then shook their head. No contactless, mag stripe or Chip & PIN accepted here. Some cash maybe? Well, I hadn’t had a chance to get to an ATM, so I shook my head, put down the basket of goods and left.

When I got back to the hotel, I asked where the nearest cash machine was. They said not far and gave me directions. I got to the corner where there three banks with ATMs. Yay! I tried the first and the transaction failed. I tried the second and the transaction failed. I tried the third … and the transaction failed. About to call my bank to complain, I then remembered that unless the banks were on the international networks, then they wouldn’t accept foreign cards for cash and yes, these were three domestic Chinese bank ATMs.

Back at the hotel, I managed to convert some dollars I had with me and get the food from the store, but it was a painful process.

I was reminded of this process over the weekend when someone shared a video of a distraught elderly Chinese man who couldn’t buy any food because the stores now don’t even accept cash, just QR Codes.

Video courtesy of Matthew Brennan on LinkedIn

The man didn’t know how to use his smartphone to buy a bunch of grapes. What followed was a heated argument with the cashless supermarket staff and he complains: “the cashier said we don’t take cash here. I said if you don’t take my cash then I’ll just leave.”

Security guards stopped him on his way out leading to the scuffle.

There’s a legitimate concern that the change that’s happened in Chinese society since 2014 with regard to rapid conversion from cash and cards to mobile payments has been too fast for some. What happens to those left behind in the digital economy?

In China, there are many complaints about Alibaba’s Supermarkets where previously you could ONLY pay through their own app which meant before you could buy anything you had to download, install, register and link your Alipay.

Like my experience, those entering China for short trips have similar issues and end up feeling excluded. In fact, this was my second reminder of this issue, when Foreign Policy covered the cashless issue in China too the other day. The report makes clear that there is a growing divide between the urban cashless Chinese and rural cash-based Chinese; and between the young cashless Chinese and the old cash-based Chinese.

In fact, shops that are finding it more difficult to take cash payments, as they no longer trade in cash, are potentially falling foul of Chinese laws if they refuse to take cash as the renminbi (yuan) is the legitimate official currency of the country. China’s Renminbi Management Regulations law contains a clause that distinctly defines the renminbi as “the legal currency of the People’s Republic of China” and says that “within China’s national borders, the usage of renminbi for transactions by work units or individuals cannot be revoked.”

The regulators are now looking to enforce these rules so that the elderly and rural are not excluded. It will be difficult however as the millions of people using WeChat Pay (over a billion WeChat users) and Alipay (over 520 million users) have moved cashless and now spend trillions of dollars ($15.5 trillion in 2017 rising to near $50 trillion by 2020) make it uneconomic for most stores to bother with the national currency anymore.

It’s a challenge to create inclusion when your very strategy creates exclusion.

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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