China's youths deal with digital debt

In China these days you can pay for virtually anything with your smartphone. Apps like Alipay and WeChat Pay have put the country on the fast track to becoming a cashless society. But they're also making it easier to fall into the debt trap with just the tap of a screen. One survey shows that over half of the country's university students have borrowed from online lending services, and it's having serious consequences.

Wang Jiayao, a senior at Bohai University in Liaoning, loves to go shopping when he needs a break from his studying.

He pays for his purchases with a credit function offered by Alipay. He scans the QR code and, just like that, he's borrowed 10 dollars. There is no interest as long as he pays the money back on time. And unlike credit cards, which have strict background checks, payment apps require only basic identification. Around 45 million people in their 20s use this service.

Wang says he likes the convenience of being able to borrow money just by tapping his smartphone. He sees it as getting the things he wants today with "money from the future."

For Wang Jiayao, using a payment app for shopping is routine.

Many in Wang's generation were raised as single children by parents who were enjoying the fruits of an economic boom. As the children became adults, they remained avid consumers and wanted to keep their comfortable lifestyles.

But easy online cash has led to trouble for some. A 24-year-old man from Hainan Island who asked not to be identified has been a big borrower since he was a university student.

A friend encouraged him to use an online lending service when he was a freshman. He quickly got used to a life of borrowing money to pay for shopping, recreation and dates, and fell into the trap of borrowing from one service to pay off another. Eventually he turned to an offline loan shark who didn't reveal how high the interest rate would be.

The man ended up borrowing more than 10,000 dollars from seven different services.

A 24-year-old man from Hainan Island has seen his debt snowball because of easy online cash.

The situation got widespread attention when media reports said young people were committing suicide because of their debts.

Some online lenders demand that people hand over all the contacts registered in their smartphones before they borrow. If the borrower fails to repay, the lender might call or email the contacts to pile on the pressure. In extreme cases, borrowers are pressured to sell their bodies to pay their debts back.

Pang Jiulin, a lawyer in Beijing who is well-versed in the issue, says that when students can't repay, underhand lenders use threats to force them to borrow from elsewhere. They see students as easy targets because they often have parents to bail them out, and they are less likely than adults to vanish.

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To try to address the problem, the government issued a notice urging local governments and educational organizations to start nurturing a sense of money from childhood.

A kindergarten in Guangdong has responded by introducing classes in FQ, or 'financial quotient.'

An education company called FQbaby dispatches teachers to help young learners develop a sense of money and value. As part of the lessons, the children use cash to buy and sell toys and other items from their homes. Some pupils said it was the first time for them to touch cash. One father said he learned a lesson too. He says he used to buy his children anything they wanted, but now he sees the importance of educating them about money.

Li Wenjuan, CEO of FQbaby, says cashless payments are so common in China now that even adults have trouble being sensible, treating money as mere numbers. She says buying habits develop as children grow, so it's essential to reach people early.

Children studies financial literacy to nurture a sense of money.

China is racing towards becoming a cashless society, but the pace of change may be too rapid for some. Many younger citizens are struggling to attain the financial literacy they need to live in a world of one-tap borrowing without falling into the debt trap.