Residents of flood-ravaged Henan Province in China have had their digital-orientated lifestyles disrupted by widespread power outages. Due to a prevalence of online payment apps, outages in the city of Zhengzhou have interfered with many citizens’ daily activities, such as ordering food and access to other necessities.
Many aspects of daily life for Chinese people is integrated with their smartphones. Consumers of all ages and walks of life primarily pay for products and services with their phones through the use of domestically developed apps tied to their bank accounts.
With smartphone internet connections shut down, citizens in Zhengzhou have been badly hampered in managing their financial activities.
A viral article posted to Chinese social media on July 22, titled “Post-Disaster Zhengzhou: When a City Suddenly Loses the Internet,” detailed sharp changes in the spending behavior of the city’s inhabitants.
Some businesses could handle cash transactions while others had to revert to bartering.
“In a fresh food supermarket by Seven Mile River, the owner sat fretfully in front of the store while a middle-aged man came out of the darkened building, carrying a bag of onions and a small winter squash,” wrote Du Qiang, the author of the article.
The owner was only accepting cash, Du wrote. The man asked to use Alipay, the largest phone-pay app inside China, but the owner refused, citing no electricity. The man found a pack of cigarettes of roughly equal value and traded them for the groceries.
Du said food delivery services, hotel bookings, and taxi rides were all impacted by the lack of electricity. He added that the city has regressed technologically by about 20 years in the wake of the flood.
Du wrote that disaster relief has been limited. Potable water is difficult to come by and said it is good samaritans that are guiding traffic around sinkholes, not public officials.
Connectivity is About ‘Total Digital Surveillance’
Tsai I-Chen, a Taiwanese columnist, wrote on Facebook that while smartphones provide convenience, they more importantly facilitate surveillance of the Chinese population by the communist authorities. Tsai stated that the flooding disaster in Zhengzhou shows that communist party officials’ use of digital technology is not about the well-being of the people.
“China has the only government in the world that has total digital surveillance on every single citizen,” he wrote. “But when the disaster happened, the people of Zhengzhou were not contacted or told that they shouldn’t ride the subway, that they should quickly escape to higher elevations.”
“[That’s] because citizens living or dying isn’t the concern. People opposing the government is the real concern,” he said.
Tsai said Chinese people have lost their freedom and privacy for minor conveniences.
“This shows that digital technology gives people low-cost convenience by trading in perpetual political surveillance to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and financial groups. But when it comes to really saving lives, [the CCP] sits there with folded arms.”
Daniel Holl and Jiang Yuchan contributed to the report.