The coronavirus outbreak in China highlighted the nation’s huge “digital divide”—the uneven distribution of information technology’s accessibility, use, and impact between different socioeconomic and demographic groups. At the South China Morning Post, Elaine Yao reported that, as in previous crises, those living in remote areas with less reliable internet access were disproportionately negatively affected during the response to the outbreak. The New York Times' Raymond Zhong similarly reported in March on how rural students, lacking the hardware and infrastructure necessary for remote learning, were far less able to continue their educations during school closures, a trend that has also affected other nations.
In an essay shared on Chinese social media site Douban, user @JiangBiliBili recalls an example of how economically disadvantaged Chinese face severe limitations to the conveniences and essentials now mediated by digital technology. The essay shows how those on the adverse side of the digital divide can be excluded from public services, and scorned in a society that increasingly values technological development and adoption:
One afternoon after seeing the dentist I took the bus home.
The buses here have all already changed over to requiring digital payment. You just open up the Alipay app, click the “pocket” icon in the upper right-hand corner, and then display the QR code for the particular city bus. Early on people worried about what those left behind by technology would do. Perhaps we justified this to ourselves by reasoning: “In their free time they can just get a young person to figure it out for them!”; “If they really can’t figure it out, they can just carry cash.” These types of justifications, perhaps useful in the abstract, in reality have proved to just be excuses.
Halfway through my bus ride, a father and son (I think) got on. The boy was eleven- or twelve-years-old. The father looked to be in his forties, his back slightly hunched and his skin dark—probably caused by many years of working outside. The two had their hands full of large and small bags. After getting on, the child found a seat and sat down, and the father stood next to the driver and pulled out his phone.
“So do I just scan with WeChat?” From his accent, it was clear he’s not local.
“Is this your first time riding?” the driver asked irritably.
“I have WeChat, who says I don’t.” He had already been fumbling on his phone for a while at that point, the eyes of the people on the bus leaving him feeling a little awkward. The boy’s seat was in the row in front of me. He continually stood there, looking towards the front of the bus.
“It’s not going to work unless it’s linked to a bank card,” the driver peered over at his phone.
Another minute passed. The driver pulled the bus over to the side of the road. None of the QR codes the man presented worked. “Invalid code,” the payment machine chimed.
The driver took the man’s phone and, after tapping on it for a bit, said, “It’s not working. You should just get off the bus and ask some young person to help you get it sorted out.”
“Why should I get off the bus?” He became agitated. The boy heard the bus driver trying to kick them off and, without hesitation, picked up the bags and got ready to go. But he was still frozen there.
Most of the people on the bus were middle-aged and wearing face masks. “You have to download it!” “You need to link it to your bank card!” “That’s not the right way!” After the bus had been stopped for a while, everyone gradually became restless. “Download,” “link to bank card”—I felt that they also weren’t too clear about the whole process. Maybe it was their own children who helped them get set up. It must have been something like that.
“Why don’t you just get off the bus! Don’t make everyone late.” Finally, a middle-aged person couldn’t hold back any longer, and joined the remove-from-the-bus faction.
That’s when I went up and took the man’s phone to try to see what’s going on. At that point, I was still confident that I could help him get it figured out.
I opened Alipay, then selected city, bus, and link to bank card—it turned out they were all stuck.
It wasn’t that his Alipay couldn’t be linked to his bank card, rather it was that his Alipay is not a “secure account,” and so can’t be linked to his bus card. Alipay said something like “please dial 953XX (I can’t remember the rest of the number) to contact…” I was completely unable to help.
No one knows what transpires in an Alipay account. Maybe you just forgot to make an “Ant Credit Pay” payment. Maybe the system didn’t like that you made too many transactions, or maybe it knows you’ve been sick... In any event, it has decided that you are not a secure account, which means you're unable to take the bus.
“I’ll scan my code for him,” I said to the driver.
“Most certainly not,” the driver replied emphatically. “I have to fulfill my legal responsibility. This is a time of pandemic, you must ride the bus using the ‘real-name registration system.’ If you scan for him and it turns out there is some type of problem, how am I going to find him?”
His seamless logic left me mute, unable to respond. How on earth could there be such an unassailable argument? Humans feel insignificant in the face of such an explanation.
“I have some money on me,” an elderly man behind me took out some paper bills. The sight of the bills felt a bit unfamiliar, like seeing an old friend. The boy and his father were still frozen to the same spot.
The elderly man gestured for me to put the bills in the slot. 8 RMB for two people. But when I turned my head I saw that the money slot had been filled with a pair of cotton gloves.
“You can’t use cash either,” the driver resumed speaking—this time less emphatically, because this time he doesn’t have an argument to rely upon. But in any event, cash can’t be used.
“Why can’t you use cash?” I was getting a bit indignant. No one answered me. There were just a few young people on the bus, all indifferently playing with their phones. The middle-aged people are all hoping the father and son would get off the bus soon. It was silent for a dozen or so seconds, the elderly man and myself were helpless.
“Why can’t you use cash?” This question appears foolish in the age of high technology. “Why would one want to use cash?” This is the retort of the good youth of our age.
“You better get off, you’re delaying everyone on the bus.” The driver used an imploring tone with the man. His son was continually expressionless as he grasped the bags tightly in his hands.
Carrying a great number of things, they got off the bus.
Dejected, I returned to my seat. I felt a sense of humiliation, like I’d been raped by technology. I don’t know if the father or the elderly man felt the same way, or if his son did.
I know that sentimentality is of little use in a place that values efficiency above all else. This self-knowledge allows me, for the most part, to suitably keep moving forward. Occasionally, when I lose this self-awareness, it hits me like a blow to the head and makes me realize the disparity of power—just like it did that time on the bus.
But I really don’t know what on earth buses were invented for. If the bus was like a Transformers character and had its own consciousness, then might it not have, at that time, spurred by anger, swept them up into its pocket? “I AM BUS—CARRYING PEOPLE IS MY MISSION” it would say. [Chinese]
Translated by an anonymous CDT contributor.