Plugged into the Matrix

During the dark days of the pandemic lockdown, Americans got comfortable with doing more things online: working, communicating, shopping, ordering groceries, etc. Chinese people had already been living that life for years.

So much of daily life in China requires a deep integration into the Chinese digital ecosystem, and once you’re part of that biosphere, your life gets convenient in many ways. Once you’re plugged in, your cell phone becomes your most important accessory, more important than your wallet, your ID, your cash. Your cell phone replaces all of those things. Someone told me the other day that he has stopped carrying a wallet, because everything that he needs on a daily basis, he can do with his phone.

Getting plugged into this matrix takes some work, though. It’s a multi-step process that has to occur in the correct sequence: first get a WeChat account. Then get a local cellphone SIM card. Then get a bank account. Then get a digital payment account. Then link all of them together. It takes most of a day to complete all of these steps. It’s a complicated process for a foreign newcomer. The other day someone told me that she did these things in the wrong order, and she’s still trying to straighten it all out.

And simply being able to speak Chinese isn’t quite enough. You have to know the correct words to use. The local bank, for example, didn’t understand us when we said we wanted to open an account. They were confused: why would you want a bank account? We were confused that they were confused. We need to be able to deposit money into the online payment system! Oh, the bank employee said. You need to open a bank CARD. Not a bank ACCOUNT.

Whatever.

Then we had to link the bank card (not account) to the online payment system. That required a phone call, because the account was frozen. We said that we couldn’t register our account. What do you mean, you can’t register? the customer service rep asked, mystified. You have an account already. We were mystified, too. The app says we’re frozen. Oh, was the reply, you mean you can’t LOG IN.

Whatever.

Then we couldn’t link the online payment system to the online shopping platform. Another phone call to customer service. What’s your account number? What do you mean, account number? We just got here, we don’t have an account yet! Yes you do, when you create an account with the online payment system, you automatically get an account in the shopping platform. So what’s your member number? How the hell do I know what my member number is, I didn’t even know that I had an account!!

And so on.

Eventually, we got everything sorted out. I learned some new terminology, and feel a bit more humble about my language skills. The upside is that we can use our cell phones to buy stuff, to take the subway, order food, pay for the food, rent a bicycle, call a cab, etc. China’s cybereconomy system makes the material aspects of city life much easier.

All of this convenience comes at a tremendous cost to personal data privacy, though. China has been a surveillance state for a long time, and technology makes following individuals easier and more invasive. That the government is monitoring our text messages and movement is not a secret. It’s a feature, not a bug. We had to register for a “health code” so that we can get into buildings. The Chinese government has implemented a complex social tracing network to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We are being actively tracked. The upside is convenience and safety. Petty crime is pretty low, largely due to the ubiquitous security cameras and cellphone tracking. The downside is that the authorities can and do get into individuals’ business at an Orwellian level.

The Matrix has us.

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