He booked doctors’ appointments there, skipping the chaotic lines for which Chinese hospitals are famous.

He added friends in Alipay’s built-in social network.

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Cash, Liu could see, had been largely replaced by two smartphone apps: Alipay and We Chat Pay.

One day, at a vegetable market, he watched a woman his mother’s age pull out her phone to pay for her groceries. To get an Alipay ID, Liu had to enter his cell phone number and scan his national ID card. Alipay had built a reputation for reliability, and compared to going to a bank managed with slothlike indifference and zero attention to customer service, signing up for Alipay was almost fun. Alipay’s slogan summed up the experience: “Trust makes it simple.”Alipay turned out to be so convenient that Liu began using it multiple times a day, starting first thing in the morning, when he ordered breakfast through a food delivery app.

One day a new icon appeared on Liu’s Alipay home screen. The name, like that of Alipay’s parent company, evoked the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, in which the words magically unseal a cave full of treasure.

When Liu touched the icon, he was greeted by an image of the Earth.

But Alipay knows all of these things about its users and more.

Owned by Ant Financial, an affiliate of the massive Alibaba corporation, Alipay is sometimes called a super app.

If he wanted to, he could access Airbnb, Uber, or Uber’s Chinese rival Didi, entirely from inside Alipay.

It was as if Amazon had swallowed e Bay, Apple News, Groupon, American Express, Citibank, and You Tube—and could siphon up data from all of them.

Facebook knows if you like Tasty cooking videos or Breitbart News.

Uber knows where you go and how you behave en route.

Their chief innovation was using computer­-driven statistical ­analysis to translate people’s personal details and financial history into a simple score, predicting how likely they were to pay back loans.