As of yesterday, Friday 28th July, foreigners banging into China are now able to link their Visa and Mastercard accounts to China’s insanely popular – nay – ubiquitous mobile payment platforms.

At last arriving in Pudong airport, wide-eyed businessmen will actually be able to get a cab, maybe buy a ticket on the maglev (which doesn;’t go all the way into Shanghai) or just get out and buy food, drink, a newspaper or Mao poster, goods and services at millions of outlets across the near-cashless country.

The duopoly of Alipay and WeChat Pay probs wanted to accept foreign credit cards and did offer some limited access in the pre-COVID, pre-tech crackdown of late 2019. They didn’t do much and then zero-COVID, Xi Jinping the Third and general insanity prevailed.

Chinese regulators got real insular, but now that China’s famed reopening has been a bit of a cock up, Chinese authorities are keen again to suck on the sweet teat of foreign investment and the manna from Mexico of international travel.

It’s been the fix for a flagging Chinese economy before and in the last few years, few have noticed how China’s mobile payment market is simply the most advanced and backward in the world.

By Christmas, for example, the sector’s expected to be worth about US$37 trillion. That’s in line with five fat years of a consecutive annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.4% between 2023 and 2028.

The world’s first genuinely cashless society has one major flaw. It’s downright xenophobic.

Despite this, the cashless market’s corker growth has perfrectly captured a booming middle class and their passion for being upwardly mobile phoney and the subsequent thriving of an ecommerce market dominated by forward thinking (until recently msg tech platform and payment specialists).

Forget the itsy-bitsy gradual transition from cash to credit cards before ultimately embracing mobile payments which we’ve seen elsewhere around the world – these days in China, cash, plastic and other such outdated imperial dogma are gone, particularly for ecommerce, with mobile payments now merely an utterly adopted way of life.

A persistent ecommerce commitment to the QR code fad has also been pivotal in facilitating simple, fast and convenient mobile payments. So good that if one wants to track one’s population morning, noon and night, these ubiquitous codes provide another layer of digital detection right down to who’s drinking too many foreign beers.

The codes can be found everywhwre from the vege seller on the back alleys of Beijing’s remaining Siheyuans, to lotto shops and upmarket establishments across the country. The adoption of digital payment methods was a no-brainer as much as it was a non-starter for anyone not that into it.

The major platform tech players like Alibaba and Tencent led the impact away from cash through the introduction of AliPay and WeChat Pay. They merely took social media tools and made them to all intents and purposes – pocket banks.

Now Tencent’s upgrade to WeChat Pay enables foreign visitors to link their international credit or debit cards, putting it at last in direct competition with Alipay’s similar service for overseas users.

While both platforms offer comparable tricks and trades which we hope will cater to the needs of international users in China, they employ slightly different approaches to the payment experience.

These digital payment platforms are the all-powerful entry points to vast ecosystems of both offline and online goods and services, providing users with seamless and convenient payment experiences.

And if you arrive in China today without approaching the idea of just how different commerce has become then you are screwed.

WeChat and welcoming ‘waiguoren’ by linking plastic to digital

Tencent’s latest WeChat Pay upgrade enables foreign users to link international cards, enhancing mobile payments in China and aligning with efforts to attract international tourists and boost domestic consumption.

On July 20, Tencent, in collaboration with itching international financial services players like Visa, JCB, and Mastercard revealed a total facelift to the mobile payment experience for foreign users in China.

Tencent has expanded the WeChat Pay merchant network across multiple cities in China, providing support to merchants in various sectors, including dining, transportation, retail, and hospitality. This development will facilitate diverse payment methods like QR code scanning, in-app purchases, and WeChat Mini Programs, offering added convenience to users.

WeChat Pay had already allowed international credit card binding since 2019 and conducted trials with select merchants in essential sectors. With this recent development, inbound travelers, including those with passports and various permits, can now easily utilize WeChat Pay and link their international bank cards to make purchases at millions of merchants.

Moreover, to enhance the payment experience for users making frequent small transactions, WeChat Pay will bear the transaction fees for international card transactions below RMB 200 (US$27.82), providing users with fee exemptions during payment.

WeChat Pay’s upgrade is specifically tailored to foreign users in China, providing them with seamless access to millions of merchants across various sectors. By allowing international credit or debit card linkage, Tencent aims to simplify payment processes for inbound travellers and expatriates, promoting a cashless and convenient payment environment in the country.

On the other hand, Alipay had previously allowed overseas users on the Chinese mainland to access local merchants using their international bank cards.

Boosting foreign spend after a crap  reopening

Recently, short-term foreign visitors in China had a 100% balls-up experience of trying to make everyday payments, as almost all Chinese businesses big or small predominantly only accept mobile payments rather than cash or traditional card methods.

Watching international visitors try to navigate the complexities of setting up Chinese bank accounts to access mobile payment services fully must’ve been hilarious/tragic.

That China even allowed people to pop over to a new world of limited acceptance of international credit or debit cards while all around the seamless payment world raged on around them has been a source of much angst and frustrastion.

Cards on the table

The fact is while everyone was watching COVID, China slid like a croc with ease into a giant cashless pond.

The country punches out some US$435 TRILLION in electronic transactions every year nowadays. And domestic consumption is notably LEAN.

More than 80% of your day to day deals involve waving a phone about.

The Chinese card payment company UnionPay has been tracking the growth and it’s (like many Chinese economic or social pivots) a simple terrifyingly fast and seamless process which hardly anyone ever takes note of.

How big are Alipay and WeChat Pay in this new universe of digital payment services? UnionPay reckons they account for a combined 91% market share.

Once the jewel in the Chinese economic engline, free-wheelin’ foreigners could theoretically access the apps’ services, but because they needed to have a mainland Chinese bank account and a local mobile phone number, which means they needed an address, a local community permit, a diamond sword and at least 1000+ trust points and dragon armour the notion was literally impossible if you weren’t a saint of some sort with perfect Mandarin and a few crazy mates to back you up.

Come back now

The timing of WeChat Pay’s latest update is not a coincidence. As China reopens its doors to international travelers after three years of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, someone’s suggested maybe they should try to include the overall experience for foreign tourists.

“This upgrade aligns with the nation’s commitment to providing a welcoming and convenient environment for visitors, making them feel at ease while exploring the country’s vibrant culture and attractions,” state media gushed this week. As if buying stuff is a new albeit crazy innovation.

What it does do is align the upgraded WeChat Pay service with China’s broader and more desperate economic goal to boost domestic consumption, and reintegrate foreign cash injections.

By providing foreign users with access to millions of merchants across various sectors, Tencent hopes to stimulate spending by international visitors, contributing to increased consumption and revenue generation within the Chinese economy.