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TREASURY

Cash is dead. Long live cash

Payments via smartphone or contactless credit card are indisputably convenient, but what is the price of going cashless? And what role does cold hard cash have in modern society?

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From the very early hours of the morning, along the hutongs in downtown Beijing, small street vendors sell hot, steamed meat buns, spicy pancakes, bubble tea and newspapers to thousands of commuters making their way into work. 

Tech savvy customers and migrant workers wave their smartphones in front of a QR code conveniently placed towards the front of each vendor’s stall. The flash of their phone marks a digital payment – a transaction is completed without the exchange of cash between vendor and customer.

Mobile payments are ingrained in Chinese life,” explains Rui Zhong, programme assistant for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Centre in Washington DC.

“Tech companies in China introduced a number of programmes, which in turn made these types of payments pervasive,” she says. “In 2014, Chinese technology company Tencent – which runs mobile application WeChat – introduced the WeChat red envelope.” 

The red envelope is a traditional monetary gift given to family and friends at special occasions. 

“What the app did was make this type of giving easier – it made it into a kind of game, and people got used to this kind of exchange quite easily,” she says.