As contactless menu ordering becomes the norm amid COVID, China pushes back

Even before the COVID-19 epidemic hit, the issue of digital order and payment in restaurants had already gained a lot of space in China. The tap-to-order method on a smartphone is part of a larger development in China where cash and physical documentation are increasingly coming out.
Many restaurants in big cities are moving to make digital menus mandatory, reducing staff costs.

Meanwhile, there has been pushback from the public and authorities centered on aggressive digitization. The title of an article published this week in the People’s Daily, the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party was: “Scan-to-order should not be the only option.”

In addition to undermining the freedom of choice of consumers and removing the human interaction that diners might appreciate, the mandatory use of smartphone also raises concerns about information privacy.

As contactless menu ordering becomes the norm amid COVID, China pushes back

Ordering over the phone often requires access to the profile of someone who enables the digital services of restaurants on WeChat, Alipay, Meituan or other Internet platforms. With this data trove, businesses will reach out to span users with ads.

“These practices undermine consumers’ right to data protection,” People’s Daily quoted a senior member of the consumer rights unit of the China Los Society, a government body of Chinese legal and academic professionals, as saying.

China has similarly targeted ubiquitous cashless payments. In 2018, China’s central bank called those who are not accustomed to electronic payments, such as senior citizens, “illegal” and cash rejection as a form of payment.

The elderly also face a dilemma as the digital health code, which usually generated by tracking people’s movement history using location data from SIM cards, has become a norm in epidemics. Without a smartphone-enabled health pass, senior citizens will be able to return bus drivers, subway station guards, restaurant workers and door attendants to other government places.

To accommodate this digital division, the southern province of Guangdong recently allowed citizens to check their health status by tapping their physical ID card on designated scanners.

Cashless payments though are an unchanging trend. Between 2015 and 2020, the rate of digital payment penetration among China’s mobile Internet users fell from less than 60% to more than 85%, according to official data. In addition, the government is accelerating the rollout of the digital yuan, which issued and operated by the central bank as opposed to third-party payment methods and serves as the statutory, digital version of China’s physical currency.