Wuzhen diary: Returning to the World Internet Conference after four years was a wake-up call given China’s alternative path to the most basic daily activity: buying stuff.

Pulling out cash or flashing a credit card at a small shop, restaurant or even upscale hotel elicited incredulous stares, creating mass confusion among staff. Asking for a physical receipt nearly brought business to a halt. What remote location could this customer reside in? The answer is Hong Kong, which is clearly light years behind in use of mobile apps to purchase everything.

When people don’t use cash, the need for ATMs evaporates. Between 2018 and 2022, the number of machines in China fell nearly 20 per cent to just under 900,000 units, data from Statista showed.

After passing through immigration at Shanghai Pudong Airport I generally stop at an HSBC ATM for some renminbi before picking up my luggage. But there were no ATMs in sight: that should have tipped me off.

A few days later in a conversation with three thirty-something VC people at the conference, I asked when they last used an ATM: one couldn’t remember, the other two said three years and four years ago. That said it all. I’m a dinosaur (and can’t access WeChat with a non-mainland phone number).

One gentleman declared even his grandfather uses apps to pay for goods, glancing at me with a mix of contempt and sadness.

Ahead of the curve
China’s digital transformation for consumers has moved far beyond music, photos, and messaging and email.

Statista research found more than 940 million people used mobile payments in the country this year, with millions of restaurants, taxis, supermarkets, convenience stores and hospitals accepting payment by Alipay and WeChat.  

With no cash, there is nothing to count, steal or avoid reporting to the government. All receipts are digital, saving countless tonnes of paper daily as well as storage space.

Wuzhen, a couple of hours southwest of Shanghai, is an ancient town built on canals restored to its former glory. While it is scenic and a huge draw for local tourists, a lack of basic English even at the fanciest hotel means staff often resort to firing up translation apps to understand terms like hot latte.

In 2024, perhaps some will sport headsets translating requests in real time, with a bot responding in perfect English, or whatever language is required.

While China’s ATM footprint is shrinking quickly, demand for physical conferences and expos certainly isn’t.

The event expanded significantly since 2019, with dozens of theme-specific forums added, including a GSMA computing power network collaboration and innovation session, as well as new exhibition halls. Key themes were AI, digital inclusion and boosting computing power to keep up with soaring network demand, with a heavy local presence. The few overseas guests could be spotted at the largest hotel, where the organiser corralled most of the non-Chinese.

Day one opened with a video message from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who reiterated a common theme: “Cyber sovereignty, as well as countries’ internet development path and governance models, should be respected. International rules on cyberspace should be observed, while cyber hegemony and must be rejected.”

The message was repeated later in the day by the Minister of Cyberspace Administration of China.

Morning keynotes featured ITU deputy secretary-general Tomas Lamanauskas, Myanmar Minister of Information Maung Ohn, GSMA Ltd CEO John Hoffman, IBM chair and CEO Arvind Krishna and China Mobile chair Yang Jie, to highlight a few.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.