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Shanghai’s strange love affair with plastic invites abuse
By Doug Young

This week’s Street View zeroes in on Shanghai’s growing love for plastic, which has fueled an explosion of membership, gift, credit and debit cards issued by just about anyone in the retail sector.

This strange love of plastic, and its abuse, has led officials in the Pudong New Area to take the much-needed step of trying to regulate an unruly group of merchants, some of whom sell cards worth thousands of yuan to consumers and then suddenly close up shop, disappearing with the money.

As a Westerner who grew up with credit and ATM cards, I’m quite accustomed to buying goods and getting money from the bank using plastic. But Shanghai merchants have taken this concept to a whole new level, loading up people’s wallets with piles of cards that perform a wide array of very limited functions.

Before I continue with my gripes about Shanghai’s plastic addiction, let’s look at the new Pudong law that marks a good first step in regulation. Here, three local agencies have come together to roll out a new system to register and regulate Pudong-based merchants that issue cards. That covers a wide range, since everyone from beauty salons to restaurants, hotels and massage parlors all seem to have their own membership cards.

The rules lay out guidelines for things like expiry dates and refund policies, in a bid to protect consumers. The report I read says 38 companies have registered under the new rules, which apply to more than 500 retailers in Pudong. I suspect there are far more than 500 merchants issuing cards and hope this new campaign will result in more uniformity in their practices.

From my perspective, a better policy would be to ban many of shops from issuing cards, especially the smallest merchants with only one or two stores. These companies pose the biggest risk to consumers, since it’s easy for them to quickly close up shop and leave customers with cards containing thousands of yuan in worthless credit.

I personally fell victim to one such scam when the place where I get my haircut convinced me to spend 1,000 yuan (US$164) for a card, then suddenly closed a few months later when I still had 500 yuan in credit. Many of my friends have similar stories.

This recent card explosion contrasts sharply with the China of only 20 years ago, which was a cash-only society. I remember when Bank of China issued its first Great Wall visa card in the 1980s, even though it was extremely difficult to get one and they came with huge limitations.

Fast forward to 2013, and it’s almost ridiculous how many plastic cards the average person in Shanghai now carries. Most of my friends have accounts with four or five banks, meaning they have to carry cards for each one. Then there are all the other membership cards for everything from grocery shopping at Carrefour to sipping coffee at Starbucks.

I have quite a few cards in my wallet, including one for my gym, four ATM cards, two credit cards and membership cards for the places I visit for massages and haircuts. The university where I teach has its own stored value card, as do restaurants I frequently visit. Many merchants practically force people to buy their cards, which automatically offer massive discounts.

While I find carrying around so much plastic cumbersome and a hassle, many of my Chinese friends actually seem to enjoy having so many cards and love to use them.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the growing number of people who insist on paying for everything with their bank cards, even when it costs as little as 20 yuan or less. I have no objections to using plastic for bigger purchases, but it seems excessive for something that small.

I don’t have any theories on why Shanghai people love their plastic so much. Perhaps having so many cards makes them feel high-tech and fashionable. Then there’s the prestige factor of impressing friends with memberships at so many shops and restaurants. And of course, everyone always loves a bargain, especially when not having a card means you have to pay twice the price.

At the end of the day, it does seem that people here in Shanghai are hooked on their plastic and that this proliferation of cards is probably here to stay. But we may get some relief from new oversight like that in Pudong, which should help to check this membership mania.

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