Selling to people in cashless China? There’s an app for that

Young Asian woman

Queueing at the Post Office for renminbi? You might want to pack a spare power bank instead. China is becoming a cashless society, thanks to the phenomenal rise of digital wallets Alipay and WeChat Pay linked to Chinese bank cards.

Hardly a week goes by without an account emerging somewhere online of a Chinese taxi driver / noodle vendor / street artist / landlord accepting payments through the phone. It’s ubiquitous. A Shanghai friend tells me no one carries cash in her city anymore, and even her granny is a convert. There’s also a “Cashless Day” on 8 August to perhaps convince remaining luddites, though quite what’s in store for that is anyone’s guess (bonfires of paper currency?). 

The numbers are eye-watering, as you might expect of the world’s most populous nation. WeChat Pay, the payment wallet inside the WeChat app, is used by 600 million people (equivalent to 10 United Kingdoms). Alipay is just behind with more than 450 million users.

Considering that many of us in 2017 are still scribbling in chequebooks, and digging out coins from the back of the sofa (although there are signs of change – no pun intended), China’s advances are impressive.

It also means that if you’re looking to visit China’s big cities, or selling goods and services to people, it’s best to keep in mind their preference for mobile.

In the UK, high-street shops have been catering for Chinese visitors for some time, with the likes of Selfridges, Holland & Barrett, The Body Shop and Harrods all accepting Alipay in their stores.

Tourism organisations are also getting in the act: in July, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo joined WeChat Pay as part of its goal to offer online ticketing for Chinese visitors, and later take the military showcase to China in 2020.

If you’re a running an online store, meanwhile, selling afternoon tea products (and why not – they’re in demand in China!), you might want to consider the online payments platform provided by Stripe.

The fintech startup recently announced a deal to help online retailers worldwide sell more easily to people in China. Users may reportedly now activate Alipay and WeChat Pay on their dashboard and accept payments from either system.

Amidst much talk about  the “Belt and Road” initiative – or a new Silk Road forged across land and sea – it seems as if the biggest trade routes between China and the rest of the world are being developed through mobile technology, something we can all relate to.

Ringy001 removes language confusion for expats in China


In my last post, I wrote of Pilot, a new device from Waverly Labs that would allow the wearer to receive an instant translation of a foreign voice in their ear. At the time of writing, Chinese (in any form), was not included among translatable languages.

But there is another way for those who need Mandarin or Cantonese translated while in China, and it’s an eminently sensible one. It’s the old way – simply asking someone – brought to the 21st century through WeChat, China’s current digital obsession.

While living in China, I often struggled with the language. I have more than one story of sheer linguistic frustration, from being stuck in a cab outside Suzhou and making choo-choo sounds to the driver, to having to deal with someone from a utility company knocking on my door at around 7am on a Saturday morning.

The only solution, I found, was to call a very understanding friend – rather like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And so, my friend very patiently spoke to the taxi driver / utility lady / handyman, and kindly translated my washing machine for me.

Interestingly, I wasn’t the only foreigner doing it this way. A young speaker I met last month at a WeChat conference in Hong Kong, Swan Huang, told that me she started her business Ringy001 as a result of expats asking her for urgent translation support.

Through finding and following “Ringy001” on WeChat – the most comprehensive and sophisticated messaging app in the world, that does everything apart from make toast – non Chinese-speakers can request a free translation or instant communication from a native speaker, by sending a message.

Of course, there is a better solution still: learn the lingo. If you have any intention of moving to China and staying in China, do the right thing and take language and cultural orientation classes. An app can only take you so far.

Pilot earpiece to turn us all into translators

Interest is growing in a new device which, when inserted in the ear, would offer an instant translation of whatever’s being communicated to you in a foreign tongue – handy if you’re in a cab and itching to get somewhere, though perhaps less so in a work context (pretty much everyone speaks English these days). In turn, your reply will be translated back to the person you’re conversing with, also wearing the earpiece.

Waverley Lab’s Pilot, launched in Barcelona at the end of the month, will reportedly be able to translate French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese initially, and supposedly more “complex” languages such as Mandarin, Russian or Arabic later – so you may want to think twice about acquiring one just yet before jetting off to an Asian destination.

Pilot will work through an app, which means you will have to carry a smartphone too (which begs the question – why bother with an earpiece?). And you might have to be online – seldom straightforward when travelling overseas.

In addition, there are certain other hurdles to overcome, like body language / facial expressions, and any device will have to be worn or shared by more than one party – conversation is two-way, after all.

Nonetheless, the potential is huge, especially with AI making further advances. I myself have experienced more than one tricky situation when travelling, owing to my poor linguistic abilities (in China especially). Any solution that allows us to understand each better, however imperfect, is progress.