Consequences of China Embracing a Digital Currency

China has a money problem; more specifically, business travelers will have a money problem while working in China.

China is no longer a cash society. The Chinese people have moved almost entirely to digital currencies. This presents obvious challenges that any foreigner on a Business Visa, not a Work Visa, who is trying to exist beyond the most mundane. The main issue is that you cannot transfer funds into a WeChat Pay Wallet using a foreign bank or credit card. You can link your foreign card to WeChat Pay, but because of government policies, you cannot transfer funds into your WeChat Pay Wallet. You might think this sounds like a first-world problem; suck it up, Tom. I agree 100%, but follow me down this rabbit hole for a few minutes.

My experience in Xi’an, a Tier Two City, and Shanghai, a Tier One City, are very different. They both present different challenges for a business traveler.

My experience without a digital wallet in Xi’an was only a surface-level annoyance. I tend to eat in local restaurants, and when trying to pay with cash, the waiter would look visibly flustered and say, “We don’t have change.” to solve this problem, he would then scrape together enough small bills from the staff to give me change. This allowed me to practice my Chinese language, and everyone involved laughed. This experience was never embarrassing or uncomfortable; it was a good time resembling a small party. Taxis and motorbikes were not a problem because you could hail one from the road, and they were okay with possibly not paying taxes on the little revenue I gave them. Also, they were shocked at having a foreigner on their motorbike after three long years. All in all, the experience without a digital wallet in Xi’an was okay because of the Xi’an people’s understanding and ability to laugh throughout the absurdity of a longhaired white guy without this essential technology.

Shanghai is another story; it’s hard. In fact, it’s a hostile experience. Let’s go through some of the basics. Taxis; to get a taxi, you need to use an app, and the payment is made through a digital wallet, so you can’t use taxis because you can’t physically get one. Ride-hailing apps; the same applies to taxis. This leaves all forms of transportation to the excellent Shanghai subway and bus system. Restaurants can be a complete headache. This morning, I had a conversation trying to explain to five restaurant workers that the 100 RMB bill I gave them was a new version. I have a pocket full of 2,000 RMB worth of these bills that I pulled from this magic machine called an ATM. Finally, a Chinese customer said, “Hey, that is a new design. Can we order a croissant now?” The problem is exacerbated in Shanghai because the people here are less forgiving. They are busy, proud, and pissed off; I love Shanghai and its people for those three reasons. With that said, it makes life needlessly complicated.
There is an obvious fix to this problem, allow people on proper Business Visas to deposit small amounts of money into an approved Chinese Digital Wallet. Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening.

Finally, no Chinese person should ever transfer funds into a foreigner’s digital wallet; ever. The risk they take far outweighs the short-term benefit you might receive. Foreigners living in China on a Work Visa should never transfer money into another foreigner’s digital wallet. Why? This can quickly look like money laundering.

Today, I’m left trying to solve the problem of how I will get from my small local hotel to the airport at 6 am on Tuesday in what China calls the Financial Capital of Asia.
Never a dull moment…