What could possibly be better for state surveillance and control? (Logic Magazine)
This summer I spent a month in Beijing. Iâ€™d last lived in China in 2016, and I was relieved to find my favorite noodle shops in their usual niches. But this time round, navigating the city felt inexplicably different. The cabs I tried to hail passed me by. On the subway, other riders jostled past me, swiping their phones at the turnstiles as I fumbled with my ticket. When I tried to sneak into the cafeteria in Renmin University for a cheap lunch, clutching my grubby backpack, I made it past the guards only to be stopped at the cash registerâ€”apart from student cards, the only form of payment accepted was Alipay.
It gradually dawned on me that that was why Beijing felt like a different city from the one I knew: in the two years since Iâ€™d left, the whole city had switched over to mobile payments on China-specific platforms to which I, a foreigner, had no access. These days in Beijing, the green and blue logos of mobile payment providers WeChat Pay and Alipay appear everywhere, from breakfast stalls to five-star hotels.
Just about every foreigner whoâ€™s visited China in the last ten years comments on the dizzying speed at which physical infrastructure is built. When I first moved to Shanghai in 2012, I worked in the cityâ€™s financial district, home to a skyscraper nicknamed the â€œbottle openerâ€: according to Wikipedia, itâ€™s the worldâ€™s tallest building with a hole in it. But these days, Chinaâ€™s part in the race to build the worldâ€™s tallest building appears to be waning. Chinaâ€™s much-vaunted speed in infrastructure building has more recently been directed at the digital rather than the physical world.