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No WeChat, No Access – How China’s Digital Revolution is Leaving behind Its Elderly Population

With apps and QR code scanning taking over day-to-day necessities in China, elderly citizens are feeling increasingly alienated from society.

Brydon Brancart

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As daily life in China becomes ever more digitally dependent, China’s elderly find themselves increasingly excluded from a wide range of services. Here’s an overview of this new societal problem by What’s on Weibo’s Brydon Brancart.

“If you don’t take cash then put a sign up!” yelled 67-year old Mr. Xie after trying to use cash to pay for his groceries at a checkout aisle reserved for mobile payments.

Enraged at his treatment, Xie’s initial reaction was to cause a ruckus, lunging at the security guards surrounding him. “You shame me, an old guy, for not being able to use WeChat!” Xie explained later on, after regaining his composure.

The video, posted on Weibo in late September of this year, quickly made its way around Chinese social media, renewing a controversy that goes right to the heart of China’s fast-paced digital revolution: can the elderly keep up?

 

No App, No Access: Seniors without Wechat

Sorry, as you’re already over 70, you’re not fit to keep on living

 

The issue became prominent last year after writer Xiao Ao (小奥) published an article titled: “Sorry, as you’re already over 70, you’re not fit to keep on living” [“对不起,由于你已经超过70岁,你已经不适合活下去了!”].

In the article, Xiao voiced her frustration over how difficult it was for her 90-year-old grandfather to receive a package she had mailed him.

“I thought it would be a simple delivery,” Xiao recalls. “My grandfather would just have to walk to his door, open it, open the package, and then could [retrieve the gift]. But I was wrong.”

Packages sent to her grandfather’s housing complex are stored for pickup in new delivery lockers – which can only be unlocked by the intended recipient using their Wechat account.

“My grandfather is only able to receive calls and can only make them with his glasses on. He can’t text, so Wechat is even more [out of the question],” Xiao explained.

According to her, there is a widespread alienation of China’s elderly from the digital economy, evident from countless reports of elderly struggling to use digitalized services that come second nature to younger generations: cab-hailing, queing in a bank or hospital, bike-sharing, the list goes on and on.

“I’ve realized that the ‘convenient life’ before my eyes is, in fact, a great disaster impeding our parents’ everyday necessities, one they can neither dodge nor escape…”, Xiao concluded.

Wang Qipeng, writing for the Beijing Evening Paper, presents a similar viewpoint.

“One can say that we live in a ‘scanning’ age,” Qipeng writes: “Yet (…) there are many elderly people who, because they cannot scan, have no way of using bike-sharing, have no way of getting discounts at the store, and can’t even open the smart-boxes that are delivered to them.”

The store owner holds up a sign that says “Mobile Payments.”

Wang’s reference to “the scanning age” is no overstatement. Whether unlocking a bicycle through a bike-sharing app such as Mobike or Ofo, or ordering lunch in the office through the meal delivery app Eleme, all transactions are performed through apps that in turn rely on mobile payment apps.

Even public institutions are adapting to the scanning age, for purposes ranging from public announcements to dispensing toilet paper.

Unlocking a Mobike by scanning a QR code (image via CGTV).

QR codes are ubiquitous across China’s public and commercial landscapes. They are posted on walls in vegetable stalls, sit beside registers at department stores, and are even used by beggars in first-tier cities.

Their function is simple. In order to access them, one opens up the relevant app and selects ‘scan’. The app opens the phone’s camera function and scans the QR code. Then, all one has to do is simply select an amount to pay or agree to terms of service. Whether it ’s scanning a QR code, or producing one to be scanned, the process takes seconds.

Reliance on mobile payments has been increasing globally, but nowhere has that growth been faster and more extensive than along China’s Eastern seaboard. According to the South China Morning Post, in the third quarter of 2017, earnings in the mobile payment sector reached 29.5 trillion RMB (almost 4.25 trillion USD), a three-fold increase in just one year.

For younger urban residents, doing away with cumbersome cash is a welcome change. A 2017 Penguin Intelligence study found that 92% of those polled in China’s cities primarily use mobile payments methods. Cash, on the other hand, is preferred by less than 10% of this group.

Handing the elderly a smartphone is in no way a solution. The replacement of the wallet by the smartphone comes with its own set of rules and requirements. Using mobile payments does not solely depend on familiarity with smartphones, it also assumes an eyesight keen enough to read the small print on phone screens.

Operations such as linking a bank account to a phone can be a nightmare for the technologically illiterate. In the absence of easily accessible courses suited to the learning speed of elderly citizens, mobile payment’s effect on this age group is precisely the opposite of what it intends, adding rather than alleviating the chores of everyday life.

 

Viral Stories of Seniors in Digital Trouble Resurface

To refuse taking on cash is actually a type of discrimination for those who do not understand how mobile payments work.”

 

Besides Xie’s viral rant, a plethora of online essays and news reports highlighted just how ill-equipped China’s eldery citizens are in today’s digital era.

In January of this year, Xin Lan News reported the story of an elderly man who, in what seems like a foreshadowing of Xie, broke down into tears at a train station after having to admit he did not know how buy a ticket online.


Incapable of buying a ticket, an elderly man cries in frustration (via Sina.com).

Around the same time, another story described the plight of a sweet potato salesman who complained that his son took advantage of his unfamiliarity of scanning to steal a large portion of his salary. And only a few days after Chinese netizens moved on from Xie’s rant, news came of an elderly woman who was tricked by a man pretending to help her use scan a QR code.

On Weibo, many commenters support the elderly in these stories. A typical comment said: “To refuse taking on cash is actually a type of discrimination for those who do not understand how mobile payments work.”

Unfortunately, despite the frequency of these stories, there is little consensus on how to better prepare the elderly for an increasingly digitalized tomorrow.

 

Proactive Solutions with Long-Term Consequences

Society ought to accommodate the needs of the elderly, it ought to consider their necessities.

.
 

Charities have sought to implement educational programs to tackle this issue. The most proactive of these organizations, See Young (夕阳再晨), a volunteer organization that started in Beijing, is now operating in sixteen Chinese provinces, having already provided individualized support to over 18,000 elderly citizens, and helped educated over a million.

The government has been supportive of See Young, mentioning them in the 13th five-year plan. Li Zhihong, head of the policy research division of the China National Working Commission on Ageing, commented to the People’s Daily that, “when it comes to helping the elderly become immersed in the information age, there are already organizations actively working [towards this].”

Yet, many disagree with forcing the elderly to continually learn, including the founder of See Young, Zhang Jiaxin (张佳鑫). In Wang Qipeng’s article “Does Scanning Leave the Elderly Without Money to Spend?” [“扫码让老人无钱可花?”], an interview with Zhang is cited where the philanthropist states:

Society ought to accommodate the needs of the elderly, it ought to consider their necessities. [Society] mustn’t force them to expend all their energy in learning this or learning that, forcing them to act in this way. Only through such [a change] will [society] truly help and respect the elderly.”

Zhang worries that continued pressure on the elderly to keep up to date on the newest technologies will only make them feel that “at home, and in society, they exist in an inferior position.”

By Brydon Brancart, edited by Eduardo Baptista

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

Brydon Brancart is a writer and Chinese translator. Originally from California, he has lived in both Beijing and Shanghai. He is interested in understanding the role modern media trends play in shaping worldviews, personal identity, and social behavior.

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  1. Avatar

    Willowjuice

    November 1, 2018 at 5:05 am

    Being old isn’t an excuse to stop learning, just like being poor isn’t an excuse to commit crime.

    Just learn.. ask the children or social workers to help set up accounts or bind bank cards, and learn.. It’s not at all rocket science unless you are illliterate or mentally retarded. You have plenty of time after retirement and you’d rather spend time eating seeds or walking dogs, and turn around and blame the development of society has left you behind? Isn’t that a bit of a joke?

    My 92-year-old grandpa uses WeChat everyday to send us message and share subscriptions. He can also ‘recall’ a message on WeChat or share videos. He chooses clothes himself on Taobao and asks his ayi to deal with the payment for him. So, what is the problem?

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China Digital

“Daddy Ma, Are You OK?” – Jack Ma’s Situation Discussed on Chinese Social Media

Public sentiments on Jack Ma have shifted, but the fans still defend their idol.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese tech superhero Jack Ma has become a hot topic on international social media this month since he has been missing in action for weeks, while Alibaba is facing an anti-monopoly investigation. Ma seems to have fallen out of favor, not just with authorities but also with many Chinese web users.

This month, the alleged ‘disappearance’ of Alibaba founder Jack Ma made headlines in various English-language media, from Reuters to CNN and the Financial Times.

The direct reason for speculation about Jack Ma’s whereabouts was his absence at Africa’s Business Heroes, a talent show he helped create in which Ma was part of the finale judge panel. According to FT.com, the final – which won’t be broadcasted until spring – took place in November.

Although an Alibaba spokesperson explained Ma’s absence from the show as a “schedule conflict” that made it impossible for the tech tycoon to participate, many Twitter users directly tied his ‘suspected missing’ to a critical speech he gave at the Shanghai Bund Finance Summit on October 24 of 2020.

In this speech, Ma made critical remarks on how China’s financial market is regulated and supervised. Kevin Xu at Interconnected provides an English translation of this speech here.

On November 3rd, two days before Alibaba’s fintech subsidiary Ant Group was set to raise around $37 billion with the biggest initial public offering of all time, Chinese regulators abruptly suspended the process. A report by the Wall Street Journal claimed that Chinese President Xi Jinping personally made the decision to halt the IPO of Ant Group after years of rising tensions between Ma and the government.

Pressure on Jack Ma and Alibaba further increased in December when Chinese regulators launched an anti-monopoly investigation into Alibaba and the Ant Group.

Alibaba announced the investigation of its company on its official Weibo channel on December 25 of 2020.

On December 25, People’s Daily also reported the anti-monopoly investigation. The state newspaper hosted a hashtag page about the matter on Sina Weibo (#人民日报再评阿里巴巴被调查#) which garnered over 240 million views. They wrote:

Large Internet platform companies should take the lead in strengthening industry self-discipline, in further enhancing their sense of social responsibility, and in safeguarding a favorable Internet economic ecosystem. The Internet industry has never been, and should never become, a place that is outside the law for anti-monopoly. Regarding platform economy, reinforcing anti-monopoly regulations is never a “winter” for the industry – it is just a new starting point for better and healthier development.”

Although Chinese official media have since not reported much on the issue, and have not published about Ma’s alleged ‘disappearance’, Ma’s whereabouts and his situation has become a much-discussed topic on various Chinese social media platforms.

 

Jack Ma in Short

 

Being among the top 20 richest people in the world, Jack Ma is world-famous as the founder of Alibaba, a multinational tech company specializing in e-commerce that was founded in 1999.

Jack Ma, whose Chinese name is Ma Yun 马云, was born in Hangzhou in 1964 to a family of low status. His life story has been retold in many books. Ma was bullied at school, had poor math skills, and flunked the entrance exam twice before he was accepted into the Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute, where he graduated in 1988 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.

Ma had been interested in English since he was a young boy. He would cycle to the main hotel in his city to connect with foreign tourists, acting as their local tour guide in return for English classes. The name ‘Jack’ was given to him by one of the tourist friends he made at that time.

image via kknews.cc

Ma went on to become an English teacher and barely even touched a keyboard before he traveled to the US in 1995 as an interpreter. It was during this trip that he was first introduced to the internet, after which he became inspired to set up his own commercial web site in China – a web site named ‘China Pages’ for Chinese businesses.

Although that business flopped, Jack Ma founded Alibaba in 1999, which would turn into an internet giant influencing virtually all corners of China’s digital world. The Alibaba Group now operates numerous businesses, including Taobao, TMall, AliExpress, and the Ant Group.

Ma’s success is a source of inspiration to many, and his ‘crazy Jack’ energetic behavior and willingness to make fun of himself has only made him and his story all the more captivating.

A younger Ma in one of his fun song-and-dance appearances – as Snow White.

Ma officially stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO in 2019 but is still the company’s largest individual shareholder.

 

“What’s up with Ma Yun?”

 

Until recently, Jack Ma was one of the more popular Chinese celebrities on social media. Jack Ma quotes, memes, videos, or stories would frequently go viral.

As one of the most respected and powerful entrepreneurs of China, bookstores have entire sections dedicated to Jack Ma and his role as a business magnate, the richest man of China, and also as a welldoer and an inspiring influential.

Books about Jack Ma.

Whatever Ma would say or do would go trending, with many people praising what he did, what he said, or where he went.

In 2017, the meeting between US President Trump and Alibaba’s Ma was a big topic of discussion, with many Chinese web users taking pride in Ma’s meeting with Trump, calling him the perfect ambassador to China in their dealings with Trump. “Ma Yun [Jack Ma] for president!” was a much recurring phrase.

It is a phrase you won’t read as much, if at all, on Chinese social media these days anymore. The silence surrounding Jack Ma recently has led to speculation and reflections on his current situation.

On Chinese search engine Baidu, the search prediction reflects web users’ confusion over his whereabouts; upon searching for ‘Ma Yun’ in the first week of January, the first five automatic predictions are the following:

– Jack Ma fled abroad
– Did Jack Ma really flee abroad?
– Jack Ma sentenced to prison
– Jack Ma disappeared
– Jack Ma Shanghai Bund speech

On Douyin (the Chinese TikTok), the first sentence to come up when searching for Ma Yun, is “What’s up with Ma Yun?”

On Weibo, where Jack Ma has over 26.4 million followers on his official account, there have not been any new posts since October 17. But Ma’s last post, which talks about an educational event, is still attracting new comments every few minutes.

“Daddy Ma, come on, ok? We’re rooting for you,” one commenter writes.

“We haven’t seen you in a long time, Brother Ma,” some write: “When will you come back into the public arena?”, with others saying: “Teacher Ma, what happened?”

But besides the messages from those who seem concerned about the well-being of the tech tycoon, there are many angry ones.

Some blame Ma for praising the ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). In 2019, Ma called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” causing much controversy online. Because the death of a young employee at Pinduoduo was also linked to her long working hours, the ‘996’ work system is a hot topic this week, with many condemning how Chinese tech companies are exploiting their employees and revisiting Ma’s 2019 comments.

Others also turn to Jack Ma’s Weibo page to complain about the shutdown of Alibaba’s music streaming app Xiami. Although Xiami only holds a small percentage of China’s music streaming market – apps such as QQ Music and KuGou are more popular – there are still many people who have been using the app for years and hate to see it go: “Why can’t you give it another chance, why can’t you take care of our Xiami!?”

And then there are those commenters who, in light of the recent developments and anti-monopoly investigations, call Ma a “greedy capitalist” and a “bloodsucker.” “Maybe he’ll be punished,” one person writes: “Is that a ‘blessing’ too?” “I went from being a fan to a hater,” another commenter writes, with others calling him an opportunist.

 

Changing Sentiments on Social Media

 

Jack Ma used to be an idol for many young people in China, but now it seems they have started to oppose him. On the Chinese video sharing site Bilibili, mainly used by younger generations, comments appearing in some videos featuring Ma are filled with anger and scolding.

This shift in Ma’s popularity among young people was recently also explained by young Chinese vlogger Yu He in this video, who argues that young people do not adore Jack Ma in the same way older Chinese people do.

Ma’s vision of working really hard, praising the ‘996’ work culture, and “everybody can be successful if you really try hard” was an inspiration to previous generations, but many post-90s people in China today – who are struggling in a highly competitive job market – do not have a lot of faith in Ma’s work philosophy when their everyday lives are not about working to live, but about living to work. To them, Ma’s ideas about working around the clock to get further in life do not make sense, as some feel they are working themselves to death while others get rich.

There is also anger over consumer lending platform Huabei, a product of Alibaba’s Ant Group. Huabei previously encouraged users to spend more money in its ads, and its platform makes it very easy to spend money first and pay it back later – even for those who might not oversee the long-term consequences of excessive debt.

The question of why Jack Ma seems to have fallen out of favor with many Chinese people is also a topic of discussion on question-and-answer platform Zhihu.com.

One popular analysis by the e-commerce account Zhiser claims that Jack Ma used to be supported by the ordinary people because he made it possible for so many of them to make money through the Taobao marketplace platform, which started in 2003. Alibaba’s Alipay online payment platform made it possible for common people to conveniently transfer money without extra fees.

But over recent years, Zhiser argues, Alibaba’s business strategies have changed in such a way that its own profits are maximized and small sellers are negatively impacted.

With the arrival and growth of Alibaba’s Tmall, where only brand owners or authorized dealers can open an online store & where transaction commissions are much higher, the traffic of small sellers on the Taobao marketplace has been reduced. Alibaba’s activities are increasingly focused on benefiting the bigger companies – and itself -, while small entrepreneurs are increasingly struggling to be noticed and make money.

Without the means to open their own Tmall shop, without the capital to afford advertisement and paid promotions for their shops, the small sellers are watching helplessly how the big boys dominate the platform algorithms and take the money, Zhiser explains.

Alibaba is now also increasingly focusing on the fruit & vegetable market. There’s Alibaba’s Hema Fresh supermarket brand, for example, with big plans to open hundreds of stores nationwide in the upcoming years. The rise of Alibaba’s fresh food businesses directly impacts the livelihood of ten thousands of ordinary Chinese who have their own small vegetable shops or street stalls – exactly those people who are already in vulnerable social groups.

Although the rise of Alibaba was once a great opportunity for common people, the changing business strategies have now resulted in Jack Ma getting more enemies, including small entrepreneurs, small sellers and buyers, offline shops, offline vendors, etc.

For them, the ‘Alibaba dream’ of using the power of the Internet and technological advancement to enable small businesses and young people to share the benefits of free trade has lost credibility.

“These years, Jack Ma has played the role of the destroyer rather than the savior,” the author writes. His article received over 10,500 endorsements.

Zhiser’s article reflects a perspective that surfaces in many places. “We believed him, that he really was making things better for us,” another blogger writes.

Others think that Jack Ma was true about his intentions and dreams when he was a teacher and then started his business, but changed when he became surrounded by money-driven big investors, causing him to become alienated from his former ideas and philosophies, losing touch with China’s younger generation, the small shop owners he promised to serve and the ordinary people.

 

“He changed China, he changed the world”

 

Despite the recent criticism of Ma, many people still defend and support him. There are even those who criticize him but still express their admiration for him.

Regarding the criticism coming from post-90s generations, one Chinese web user commented:

You have no idea what it was like before Jack Ma came around. You’re too young to know. If you want to go back [in that time], I suggest you go live on the moon.”

Discussing the changing sentiments regarding Ma, Zhihu author Qing Rui writes:

Jack Ma is a great entrepreneur of this era. He changed China, he changed the world. A lot of nonsensical people scold him for damaging China’s real economy, while he’s actually worked hard to improve the efficiency of the business sector, which has not only greatly boosted the real economy, but also greatly improved the living standards of the Chinese people.”

It is a sentiment shared by many, who express that they think the recent shift in views on Ma is uncalled for, or reminding people of the positive effect Ma and his businesses have had on China’s development.

“Those who scold Jack Ma are brainless idiots,” some write.

“How is it possible for the public opinion on Daddy Ma shifting 180 degrees? It’s like throwing stones at someone who fell down,” one Weibo user from Shenyang writes.

Although perhaps less crowded than before, online ‘Ma Yun Fanclubs’ are still active. One Weibo fan writes: “Let’s all hope our favorite idol Ma Yun will smoothly sail through this crisis!”

As for the ‘disappearance’ of Jack Ma that has previously been reported – although Ma has not been out in public, it is highly unlikely that he is actually missing.

CNBC reported on January 5 that the Chinese billionaire is lying low, according to a person familiar with the matter.

When famous Chinese actress Fan Bingbing got caught up in a tax evasion scandal in 2018, her ‘disappearance’ also made headlines in international media. After months of silence and wild rumors, the actress returned to social media with a public apology. She was ordered to pay taxes and fines worth hundreds of millions of yuan.

Meanwhile, Jack Ma’s Weibo page is still receiving dozens of new messages. In between the “evil capitalist” scoldings, there are some who really hope Ma will come back to public life soon: “We’ll support you, teacher Ma, don’t give up!”

 

By Manya Koetse

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Digital

Pinduoduo Employee’s Suicide Intensifies Online Debate on Company’s Working Culture

For the second time this month, Pinduoduo makes headlines for the death of an employee.

Manya Koetse

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The suicide of a Pinduoduo staff member is trending today on Chinese social media, where discussions on tough ‘996’ working schedules (working 9am-9pm, 6 days a week) have been ongoing since the sudden death of another employee.

The staff member named Tan (谭) reportedly jumped from the 27th floor of an apartment building in his hometown of Changsha in Hunan province, where he had arrived that same day. The incident occurred around 0:30 AM 12:30 pm on January 9.

Pinduoduo published a statement about the death of their employee, expressing their condolences. They also said they were awaiting the results of the ongoing investigation into the death of Tan.

Meanwhile, the company stated they would immediately open a special channel within their office system for psychological support and consultation.

Tan had been working at Pinduoduo since July of last year as a technology development engineer. He was unmarried.

Pinduoduo is China’s largest interactive online shopping platform. The company has been under fire on social media recently, with stories coming out on the company’s overwork culture that is putting an enormous strain on its employees.

The death of a 22-year-old female staff member, who suddenly collapsed after a long day of work on December 29, is still being investigated. Although no official cause of death has been given, her death has been linked to Pinduoduo’s extreme working culture.

“A Second Foxconn?”

Since Pinduoduo is making headlines again for another employee death, people on Weibo are now mentioning the electronics manufacturer Foxconn (富士康). Foxconn attracted major media attention after a series of employee suicides in 2010 and 2012 linked to low pay and poor working conditions.

On Weibo, many commenters wonder if Pinduoduo is becoming a second Foxconn.

Meanwhile, more staff members are speaking out about Pinduoduo’s working culture. The stories of former employees of the company’s community group buying unit Duoduo Maicai (多多买菜) were shared by Sohu News. They talk about 12-hour workdays and “supersize” work weeks (超级大小周) where staff would work 13 days in a row, then get one day off, or not getting days off at all. They also speak of requirements to minimally work 300 hours per month.

Despite the waves of criticism on Pinduoduo, there are also online voices who praise the company for bringing out a clear and honest statement right after the death of their employee and opening up a support channel for staff members.

Update January 11:

In an updated statement released to the media, Pinduoduo states that their employee had applied for leave from his supervisor on January 8 at 8:37 a.m., without giving a reason. He reportedly passed the probationary period and was a high achiever who received an average 80 out of 100 assessments at the company.

The company also states that when their support team flew to Changsha to provide assistance to the family, they learned that the employee already booked his return flight for January 9 from Changsha to Shanghai.

 
By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

 

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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