Translation: 300 Million People Abandoned by “Smartphone Society”

In China, the smartphone has quickly become the key to unlocking public transportation, medical care, and entrance into restaurants or other public spaces. The coronavirus crisis has only accelerated the shift, with QR health codes on WeChat and Alipay now tracking users’ COVID-19 test results in order to green light public movement and activity. The rapid shift to this modern system of “convenience” has essentially locked out the poor, elderly, disabled, and anyone else without the means or ability to use a smartphone and have it linked to a high-speed network and a bank card at all times.

The locked-outs and the locked-ins are closer to one another than this new, ultra-convenient “smartphone society” makes it seem. In June, a Douban blogger who tried, in vain, to help a migrant worker and the child accompanying him pay bus fare, reflected that “I felt a sense of humiliation, like I’d been raped by technology.”

In the think piece translated below, WeChat user @拾遗 (meaning, roughly, “Lost and Found”) warns that this over-reliance on the latest technology means that everyone could someday find themselves left behind for the crime of growing old. The original WeChat post has been removed, but has been archived by CDT Chinese.

300 Million People Don’t Deserve to Live Among Us

Description of Lost Items: Old people who don’t have / can’t use smartphones.


On April 17, 2020,
an old man in Harbin
tried to get on a bus.
Since he didn’t have a smartphone,
he had no health code to scan,
and so he couldn’t get on.
The driver said,
“It’s company rules,
if you can’t scan I can’t let you ride.”
The passengers said,
“Get off, don’t make us late for work.”
“Don’t disrespect your elders, get off already.”
Soon the police came
to take him off the bus:
“If you don’t scan, you don’t ride. It’s government regulation.”
Tell me,
was the driver wrong?
No, those are in fact the company rules.
Were the passengers wrong?
No, they were enforcing the rules.
Were the police wrong?
No again, they were following the rules.
None of them were wrong,
but that poor old man.


This story really made me think.
Since February, this kind of thing
has happened to my Mom a few times.
There’s no procedure to leave
our residential compound,
but there is for coming back:
one, they take your temperature,
and two, you show them your health code.
My Mom likes to go get groceries,
but she doesn’t know how to use a smartphone,
just the same old phone she’s had for years.
So if she leaves, she can’t get back in,
and calls me to come help her,
and I run home from the office.
After the second time,
she didn’t leave the compound for two months.
“I don’t want to trouble you,” she said.
Last week her coronary heart disease flared up,
and since she didn’t want to bother me at work
she took herself to the hospital.
But no one would see her.
They said,
“Didn’t you register before you got here?
You have to take a number on WeChat.”
Stunned, my Mother asked,
“Can’t I get a number here?”
They said,
“In theory, yes,
but the numbers have all been taken for today.”
All she could do was go home, clutching her chest.


Today’s society
is a smartphone society.
You scan to take the bus,
you scan to buy groceries,
you scan at hotels,
you scan at hospitals,
you scan to get a bank card,
you scan to order food,
you scan to travel,
you scan to do government business…
If you don’t have a smartphone
or you can’t use one,
you really can’t do anything.
On April 28, 2020,
CNNIC released its Statistical Report on China’s Internet Development:
As of March 2020,
China has 904 million netizens
and an internet penetration rate of 64.5%.
In other words,
500 million people are not online.
These 500 million
besides children and certain groups (like the disabled)
include 300 million elderly.
These 300 million
have been abandoned by our smart society.
The more efficient society gets,
the less hospitable it is to the old.


The internet lit up
about the old man in Harbin.
A lot of people said,
“Why can’t he use a smartphone?”
“He can’t even scan a code?”
“Those old folks have figured out how to keep dancing in public squares, how come they can’t figure out cell phones?”
“Technology won’t wait for you. Get with it or get left behind.”
“If you can’t keep up with the times, the times will run you over.”
All this talk reminds me
of a fable.
When Emperor Hui of Jin ruled China,
there was a terrible famine that lasted two years.
The people had no rice to eat,
only grass roots and tree bark,
and many people starved to death.
The emperor was pained to hear the news
and wanted to do something for the people.
He racked his brains, then finally
told his ministers,
“The common people cannot eat like me,
a daily feast of rich and rare foods.
Why not ask them to save up
so they can have meat porridge every day!”
Clearly, he’d never felt a hunger pang.


Why are there so many people who can’t use a smartphone?
Because they can’t afford it.
Premier Li Keqiang said not long ago,
“600 million people in China are low- or middle-income,
“living on just 1,000 yuan per month.”
Lots of people don’t even have broadband,
and they can’t afford the costs that come with a smartphone.
Why are there so many people who can’t use a smartphone?
Because they can’t read.
While we’ve made great progress to end illiteracy,
there are still 80 million Chinese who can’t read.
Maybe you think that’s not a lot,
but 80 million is more people
than the population of most countries.
Why are there so many people who can’t use a smartphone?
Because they are disabled.
More than 85 million Chinese are disabled
and many of them are unable to use a smartphone.
Why are there so many people who can’t use a smartphone?
Because you lose mental sharpness as you age.
I bought a smartphone for my mom
and taught her how to use it,
but she turned around, took a nap, and forgot.
“Aiya, I can’t use this toy,
I’m too old, I don’t have the brains for it.”


Now, I know what you’re thinking.
Let’s say the old do have the brains for it,
but they’re just not interested,
or maybe they don’t want to make the effort.
Do they not deserve to get on the bus?
Do they not deserve to see the doctor?
Do they not deserve to eat at a restaurant?
Do they not deserve to leave the house?
Just because they can’t use a smartphone,
they don’t deserve to live among us?
They were young, once.
They bled and sweated for China.
They sacrificed their youth to China.
Whatever the reason they can’t use a smartphone,
should they then be tossed aside
and banished from all public space?
It’s like it’s a crime
not to have a smartphone.
But where in the world is the law
that says we all must move in lockstep?


We grovel at the feet of the youth,
our every move is made for them.
Smartphones pay unending dividends
to the young among us,
but they have also dug a moat
to keep the old folks out.
Is that what the old deserve?
that’s not how civilization works.
What does it mean to be civilized?
China Youth Daily said it best:
“To be civilized is for one generation to consider the other.
When those who now have the power of speech
think of those who have lost that power–those who once spoke for them–
only then will civilization spread unbounded.
To be civilized is for the majority to think of the minority.
When the powerful many
remember the powerless few,
only then will civilization grow without limit.”
True civilization
doesn’t cast aside those who can’t keep up
but protects their right to choose “slow.”
True civilization
doesn’t mean that the few obey the many,
but that the many look after the few.


We’re moving too fast.
We should wait for our elders.
Zhou Daxin once wrote,
“In this world,
when it comes to age,
there are three types of people:
those who are already old,
those who are about to become old,
and those who are finally old.”
Every single one of us will get old some day.
Treating our elders with kindness
is treating ourselves with kindness.
Today, the older generation doesn’t understand the internet,
they don’t get Didi,
they don’t get Meituan,
they don’t get Dingding.
But when we are old,
maybe we won’t get 6G,
maybe we won’t get VR,
maybe we won’t get AI,
maybe we won’t get blockchain,
maybe we won’t get quantum mechanics.
If we always have to give up
on the people who can’t keep up
then who’s to say in ten or twenty years
we won’t be tossed out, too?
When we ask if the old have a right to not use a smartphone,
we’re talking about
them today,
and us tomorrow.
I really like this saying:
“Don’t be too hard on children–
after all, they are who we once were.
Don’t dismiss the elderly–
after all, they are who we will become.”
We should treat the old well,
because treating them well is treating our future selves well.


How do we take care of the stragglers
in our “smart” society?
Actually, it’s simple:
just keep some of the old ways.
It’s fine for restaurants
to promote QR codes,
but why not keep the menus, too?
Buses can scan health codes,
but at the same time,
can’t they check papers, too?
Patients can queue on WeChat,
but at the same time,
can’t the hospital spare some numbers?
Cabs and Didis can take WeChat Pay,
but at the same time,
why not have some change and receipts on hand,
in case someone wants to pay with cash?…
It will be a little less convenient,
it will take a bit more effort,
it will eat up some resources.
But it’s what a civilized society should do!


My Mom barely leaves the house now,
because she can’t use a smartphone:
“I can’t do it, it’s too complicated.
I don’t want to cause trouble.”
I’m pretty busy at work
and I can’t walk with her all the time.
So she sits at home all day.
Just eating, sleeping, using the toilet,
and sitting. That’s her day.
Seeing her like this
makes me sad in a way that I can’t describe.
I saw this piece of news the other day:
“Elon Musk declares success
installing chips into brains.
The bionic human is on the horizon.”
A surge of fear
went through me:
“When we cross that horizon,
will I be one of those olds who can’t keep up?”
I read something that worries me:
“Perhaps you think
that smartphone-less old people stuck at home have nothing to do with you.
But just think, one day
you won’t have a chip in your brain, and you’ll be stuck at home,
and it’s you the young people will be laughing at.”
Ten or twenty years from now,
we’ll be old and irrelevant in the eyes of the young.
How we treat the old right now
is how the young will treat us, someday. [Chinese]


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.