Last week, I lost my smartphone after a bottle of very dry wine in a cab. Soon, I found out how terrible it can be to live without a phone in China, even for one day.
In today’s Chinese cities, people communicate through WeChat, pay with WeChat Pay or Alipay, order food via Meituan, hail cabs with Didi Chuxing, and waste time on Douyin, all through a smartphone. A lot of small stores and restaurants don’t even accept cash anymore.
Life without a smartphone is more than inconvenient.
It all began when I left my device in a Didi car, the Chinese version of Uber. I use Didi’s services almost every day to go to my office, or to go out.
After getting out of the car and heading to a 24-hour convenience store with my friend, I realized my phone was not in my tote bag, where I always keep it. Right away, I asked my friend to dial my number, and heard the bad news—”The phone you’re trying to reach is turned off.”
Because I’ve left it in a Didi’s car, I didn’t panic. Unlike a traditional taxi, in the digital world, the ride-hailing company keeps a record of every ride, complete with driver and passenger contact information. Retrieving lost items has never been simpler.
At least in theory.
My first step was to call Didi’s customer service. An operator tried to help me, but after checking with my driver, they didn’t find anything.
Then I tried Apple’s “Find My” function (yes, I am an iPhone user), which allows Apple ID owners to locate their devices. However, iCloud didn’t help, since the device was offline.
I went to bed thinking about how I would survive without a phone, nor SIM card and internet connection, basic tools to go through daily life in today’s society.
As of June last year, the internet penetration rate reached 61.2% in China. The country had over 847 million mobile internet users, more than a quarter of the total number of smartphone users across the world, at 3.2 billion, according to data from 2019.
Owing to high-speed 4G internet, cheap data package, and bargain handsets, China stepped into the era of mobile internet very quickly. Around 2017, the conception of “Four new inventions”—high-speed rail, mobile payment, e-commerce, and bike-sharing—surfaced repeatedly on Chinese social media platforms. Except for the railway, for all the other three “inventions,” you need a phone.
Getting to work, not that easy
I almost overslept, because I had no phone alarm. Then, I needed to figure out how to get to the office.
I had no cash—I use Alipay and WeChat Pay e-wallets almost for everything. I shop for things frequently on Alibaba’s e-commerce marketplace Taobao, on which my account is associated with Alipay. I also use these apps to book flights and hotels, check my bank account, and pay for utilities, among other services.
When I buy things at the grocery store, I pay for them through WeChat Pay by scanning a QR code. WeChat reported 1.2 billion monthly active users (MAUs) in Tencent’s Q1 quarterly report, and I am one of them. I don’t even remember the last time I took cash from my wallet to pay for products or services.
I wanted to cycle to my office, but I couldn’t unlock a Meituan or Didi’s shared bike. Although they are everywhere in Beijing, I was not able to scan their QR code to unlock them, since I don’t own a phone anymore.
Shared bikes were used by over 380 million users in 2019 in China. According to a report by research institute Qianzhan, the market volume of China’s bike-sharing industry was predicted to hit RMB 23.7 billion (USD 3.4 billion) the same year. But, to use a bike, the only way to unlock them is through their apps or mini programs (on WeChat or Alipay), by scanning a QR code on the bike. Nothing that I could do without my device.
Some might say, “Big deal, use the subway!” However, this wasn’t an option either.
Usually, when riding the subway, I use an app called Yitongxing, which provides scannable QR codes as tickets for the Beijing subway. Users can also pay for their rides through Alipay and WeChat in most Chinese cities.
I looked for coins, but couldn’t find any at home.
Suddenly, the rapid digitalization of China’s transportation infrastructure didn’t seem so convenient after all. Nowadays, even if you spot an empty cab on the street and hail it, there is a 90% chance the driver will shake their head and point to their phone–meaning you need to call using an app, like Didi.
How about walking there? I would gladly enjoy a morning walk, but I didn’t have an Alibaba-backed AutoNavi Map nor Baidu Map to guide me. And my terrible sense of direction would get me lost in the city.
In the end, a friend called a taxi for me.
An unsuccessful recovery
In front of my office building, many people lined up. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone is required to show their health status before entering a building through a mini-program in WeChat or Alipay, dubbed “Beijing Health Kit.“
I was stopped by a doorman who asked me to prove that I was healthy.
The Health Kit program requires people to submit personal information including the ID number, phone number, and address, and take a selfie to log in. The system then will generate a certificate for you, informing you whether you’re “healthy” or not. However, thanks to the option “Query on others,” I was able to check my status on a colleague’s phones, so to be able to access my office.
After working for several hours, I decided to check in with Didi’s customer service again, helped again by my coworker’s phone. The platform tried its best, as the customer service personnel said. They also rewatched the car’s CCTV footage, but were still not able to “find any valid evidence.”
The situation forced me to call my telecom carrier to block the previous SIM card. Otherwise, all accounts associated with the phone number could potentially be at risk. China Mobile, the country’s biggest telecom company, threw a question at me, which I bet most people can not answer—”Can you provide five numbers you dialed in the recent month?”
Who had called me? Deliverymen, Didi drivers, parcel carriers, and restaurants. I have called whom? Deliverymen, Didi drivers, parcel carriers, and restaurants. Of course, I didn’t remember these numbers. All the conversations I had with my family members and friends were on WeChat and all the conversations I had with my colleagues were on ByteDance’s office application Lark.
I struggled to come up with five numbers (thanks to my parents and those friends who called me in April). I requested a replacement, but the telecom carrier said that only the holder of the phone number could claim a new one. And, I was not the holder. Urgh. Right. I have been using the number since I was underaged and it is officially a phone number owned by my dad, who is now thousands of miles away from me.
Later that day, I borrowed my friend’s old phone as a backup device. First thing’s first, I logged on again on WeChat and Alipay—what a relief.
My dad got a new SIM card and sent it out via SF Express, which is usually the fastest way, although the stringent security check on packages during the period of the Two Sessions, China’s top political meetings of the year, brought some uncertainties.
I was exhausted, and started to mourn for the lost phone’s camera roll, which hadn’t got the chance to save on iCloud, and would be erased sooner or later. So the lesson here—always backup all your data, your photos, and precious memories.
A new phone is on its way. I can’t wait to go back to my normal life.