These days, in the charged atmosphere surrounding Sino-US relations, it feels like it’s hard to find anything that puts the two countries on the same page. But that is only a distorted image fueled by politics. If you look a little deeper beneath the rigid surface, concurrences are not hard to find. The rise of the cashless economy and the reactions of decision-makers in both countries are a timely example.
Not too long ago, the rapidly growing cashless economy in China was still a wonder that awed many people who travelled there from the US, including myself. I still can feel the frustration when I think about that hot summer day in 2017 when I stood in a small food stall in my hometown Shijiazhuang, hungry, with money, but at risk of not being served.
I wanted to get just a few steamed buns with some small appetizers. The cost was 30 yuan ($4.4). I had a 100 yuan bill on hand. The cashier looked at the money and then looked at me. It took her at least half a minute before she finally said, “Sorry, we have no change. Customers don’t use cash anymore.”
I eventually managed to break the bill with the help of a sympathetic customer. Not until then did I fully understand a warning from a friend who went back to China a little earlier than me. “Even street vendors and beggars prefer electronic transactions now,” she said. “If you are not able to pay by phone, you’ll feel like an alien.”
That was when paying bills using cellphones had just started to pick up momentum in the US. That process has now accelerated. Shops big and small in the US vie to announce that they have gone cashless, and customers can pay by cellphone, credit card or debit card, just not the greenback paper with the words “In God We Trust” printed on it.
The cashless economy immediately wins fans who salute the convenience it brings. It is more hygienic. It reduces the chances of robbery for shops. And it is a safeguard against money forgery and tax evasion.
But often high-tech products that offer convenience and equality on one level, offer inconvenience and inequality on another. In this case, people who don’t have a bank account and who don’t own a smartphone are not only left out by these modern ways, they are deprived of the right to shop in many places. And that worries decision-makers in both China and the US.
Last summer, the People’s Bank of China issued a memorandum banning shops from refusing to accept cash payments. Meanwhile, lawmakers in a few American cities and states, including New York, have proposed legislation along similar lines.
China and the US are facing similar challenges. According to the latest statistics released in early 2018 by the World Bank, about 90 percent of Chinese adults had a bank account in 2017. A survey released by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in the US in the same year found 6.5 percent of American households had no bank account and 18.7 percent of US households were underbanked – owning bank accounts but largely relying on the out-of-bank system for financial transactions.
The challenges high-tech brings to human beings shall have the same effects. Despite their different political systems, China and the US have more things to work together on than fight over.
The author is a New York-based journalist. This comment first appeared in Global Times.