Media  Global Economy  2023.08.01

China's IT and Service Improvements Surprise Experts, but Tighter Management Has Side Effects | Japan-U.S.-China Relations/Hearing

Current status of Chinese society, which has undergone rapid changes through the COVID-19 pandemic

The article was originally posted on JBpress on May 18, 2023

Chinese Economy China

1. Progress in digital technology

In the second half of April, I visited Beijing and Shanghai for the first time in three years and three months.

Formerly, in China, old buildings were often demolished and many new high-rise ones were built in a short period of time, changing the townscapes beyond recognition, and therefore, before the recent visit, too, I had expected similar significant changes in townscapes.

But both in Beijing and Shanghai, except for certain areas, there were no significant townscape changes in the center of urban districts.

The changes that impressed me during the recent visit lay not in the appearance of cities but inside their buildings. They were the progress in digital technology and the improvement of service levels.

I realized the first of the two changes, the progress in digital technology, as soon as I arrived at the airport in Beijing.

When I placed four fingers of my right hand on the fingerprint authentication equipment installed in the airport, the fingerprint confirmation was completed instantaneously.

Usually, in Japan and the United States, as my fingerprints are difficult to read, the confirmation process is not completed by simply placing my fingers on the equipment once, and it is only done after I change the placement of my fingers several times.

This time around, I was surprised because the sign that the confirmation had been completed was displayed immediately. I suspected that this was due to the high precision of the sensor.

Another thing I realized was the way the identity of persons entering and leaving an office building was improved.

As I was a visitor, I picked up a visitor’s card at the reception of an office building and went through the gate by holding the card against the sensor at the gate in front of elevators.

Even buildings in which visitors had formerly been able to enter freely now required them to register at the reception, which made me actually feel that stricter security was in place.

My impression is that formerly, in China, visitors could not pass through the gate smoothly even if they held a visitor’s card against the sensor and that at the reception, it often took much time to receive such a card.

During the recent visit, I did not feel such a low level of convenience.

In addition, in many buildings, I saw people working there pass through the gate only by putting their face in front of a face authentication sensor rather than holding their ID card against the equipment.

As this is not a familiar sight in Tokyo, it left a strong impression on me.

One cannot experience such cases that make one really feel the progress in digital technology unless one actually goes to China.

During my short business trip, I noticed only this much because I moved around as a visitor at a limited number of facilities, such as airports, hotels, office buildings, and restaurants.

It can be easily imagined that one would experience even more progress in digital technology when living or working in China.

In terms of digital technology, since before COVID-19, China has run ahead of Japan in the proliferation of advanced technology, including the spread of mobile payments, the use of smartphones for personal identification and transportation, the development of e-commerce, and an automatic system for cracking down on traffic violations.

What I really felt this time was that such developments were continuing steadily.

2. Improvement of service levels

The second of the two changes, the improvement of service levels, consisted of a succession of unexpected events.

The first was services at smartphone-related stores.

Since early on, I had used a prepaid smartphone that I only used in China, but as I had not turned it on for more than three years, the registered phone number had become unusable.

Therefore, I took steps to obtain a new number at an outlet of a major communications carrier and start using the phone under the prepaid system again.

In terms of service level, including user-friendliness and efficiency, explanations and procedures at the outlet were comparable to those at the outlets of major communications carriers in Japan.

Formerly, services in China had compared unfavorably with those in Japan, but during the recent visit, I did not perceive such differences in service level.

Next, it was at teahouses that I felt that the service levels had improved.

As the meeting in Beijing was scheduled for 9:00 a.m., I waited at a coffeehouse that was open even at such early hours.

Located back from the main street along a narrow alley, it was an ordinary small coffeehouse run by two young women.

When I ordered coffee with milk, a glass of water with ice was placed on the table together with coffee.

I often go on a business trip and order coffee at coffeehouses in Western countries, but I had recognized that serving water along with the coffee was a service unique to Japan.

I was surprised because such a service was provided at a back-alley teahouse in Beijing as a matter of course.

At that time, I thought that only that coffeehouse might provide such a service.

Several days later, however, a glass of water with ice was served, too, when in Shanghai I entered a coffeehouse in an office building alone for time adjustment.

I realized that at least in large cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, China had caught up with Japan in terms of the service level at coffeehouses.

What surprised me most in terms of service level improvement was the service provided by cabin attendants (CAs) on a domestic flight from Beijing to Shanghai.

As I often go on business trips, I use a business-class seat for both international and domestic flights.

The Western standard for business class on domestic flights is that except for the substantial reclining of the seat, which is convenient for working and taking a nap, no such careful services as those offered on international flights are provided.

Previously, the Chinese standard was the same as its Western counterpart.

But when I flew from Beijing to Shanghai, I might have happened to be lucky, but I was provided with wonderful service comparable to that offered by excellent CAs on international flights of Japanese airlines.

Specifically, Chinese CAs responded to customers appropriately in a timely manner to meet their individual needs while watching their looks and gestures, rather than performing their duties properly according to what was written in the manual.

They provided thoughtful services, each of which showed their careful attention.

As I had experienced this type of service only on international flights of Japanese airlines, I never expected it on Chinese domestic flights.

As described above, I really felt that the service levels in China had improved during the past three years and three months and pondered over the cause of the improvement.

The services that impressed me during the recent visit were all provided by young people in their 20s.

In other words, these are people who were born in the 1990s or thereafter and are referred to as “jiu ling hou.”

In general, the young people of this generation have not experienced certain hardships of life because they have known only the period of rapid economic growth since they were born.

They have high educational standards on average, understand global standards through Internet information, and live according to the way of thinking and living standards based on the global standards.

This is why during the past 10 years or so there have practically been no gaps between Japanese university students and their Chinese counterparts who visit Japan in terms of living standards and understanding of the world.

I believe that the period has come in which the “jiu ling hou” generation supports services in China and that this is the major reason China’s service levels have improved.

As service providers fully understand the needs of customers, they can naturally provide services that meet their needs.

I guess that the reason a glass of water is served at coffeehouses is that someone saw such a service when he or she traveled to Japan, realized that it was good, and introduced it in China.

In China, as market competition is intense, good services quickly spread throughout the country.

The various improvements of service levels presented above may have begun somewhere in China even before COVID-19, but at least they had not popularized as general examples.

During the past period of a little more than three years, however, they have manifested in the form of general improvements of service levels in Chinese society, at least in the two major cities of Beijing and Shanghai.

These improvements of service levels impressed me more than the progress in digital technology.

3. Side effects of measures for tighter control

Everything that surprised me during the recent visit was not necessarily good, however.

When I was going to buy a ticket from a vending machine at a subway station in cash, I found that the vending machine would not allow me to buy a ticket without entering the number of the Chinese identification card.

I could not enter the number because all I had was my passport. For this reason, I could not buy a ticket from the vending machine even if I had cash on hand.

When I stood bewildered, a station clerk happened to pass by, and I asked him where I could buy a ticket. Then, pointing to a dark window where there was no one, he said, “You can buy it there. I am going there now.”

I could buy a ticket there without problems, but if I had been a foreigner who could not speak Chinese, I would have had a really hard time.

Formerly, taxis could be picked up anywhere in town, but recently, practically no taxis have been seen because “Didi Chuxing,” the Chinese version of Uber Taxi, has spread.

In order to take a Didi Chuxing taxi, it is necessary to use a Chinese mobile payment system.

Mobile payment is linked to bank accounts in China, but foreign tourists and foreigners on a business trip cannot use mobile payments because it is difficult to open a bank account in the country.

If they have not installed mobile payment service applications linked to their credit cards in advance, they cannot use a taxi even if they wish to go somewhere by car.

As for bank accounts, the introduction of a system in which the confirmation of an entry visa number is linked to the use of a bank account has resulted in a loss of convenience, as deposits cannot be withdrawn unless the registration procedure is redone each time the visa number changes.

It is safe to say that all these measures are intended to grasp the flow of people and funds to maintain public order in the country, but they end up lowering the convenience for foreign tourists and foreigners on a business trip.

I sought comments on the points mentioned above from people of Japanese businesses who were stationed in China and received those listed below.

“In circumstances under which there were practically no visitors from overseas for over three years, the government tightened its control system for COVID-19 countermeasures. As a result, it is now difficult for visitors from overseas to move freely in the country.”

“Given that the government authorities are promoting measures to open the country for overseas businesses and attract foreign-affiliated enterprises actively, I believe that some kind of measures will be taken to improve the convenience for foreign tourists and foreigners on a business trip in a near future.”

Until such improvement measures are taken in concrete terms, it will continue to be difficult for visitors from overseas to move alone in town using public transportation without the support of those who live in China.

Certainly, technologies and services have improved remarkably, but downside is that the side effect of tighter controls have made domestic travel and financial services more inconvenient for foreign visitors.

These are my honest impressions from the business trip to China I went on for the first time in three years and three months.