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China takes mobile payments to a whole new level

Commentary: When it comes to mobile money and instant delivery, these popular services in China make me jealous as anything.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

China may not have the best Internet access in the world, but from what I've seen so far, it's on top for mobile payments.

My friends Amy Deng and Eric Liu moved from San Francisco to Shanghai about a year ago. When I asked them over lunch in Shanghai about some of their favorite tech in China so far, they didn't hesitate: Alipay.

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This is the mobile payment arm of Alibaba, China's mega-Amazon-style online retailer for just about anything. Alipay is incredibly easy to use and everyone does it, Liu said.

"It's like the Costco of payments."

(It's true, I saw Alipay signs everywhere.)

What became clear as the two pointed out its features is that Alipay isn't important just because it's about mobile payments. It's an important way to pay for goods and services, period. There's no special emphasis on the electronic, phone-centric nature of transaction. Instead, it's an automatic, accepted part of the way things are done here.

After our lunch bill arrived, the server handed Lui a slip of paper with a QR code printed on it. He opened the scanner in his Alipay app, positioned the phone to read it, and in about a second, lunch was settled.

This QR code method is only one of the many ways that locals pay for goods and services. Liu, the CEO of VR and simulation engine Unigine and Deng, a former deputy district attorney-turned-fashion designer, also showed me how Alipay can be used to transfer money. It can pay for utilities, and air and rail tickets; foot the bill for parents; summon China's version of an Uber (called Didi); and secure immediate refunds from items you return. There's smart security in place and local businesses often give you discounts if you use it.

"It's what Apple Pay wants to be," Liu said.

Contests and more

Popular as Alipay is, it isn't the only game in town. WeChat, a dominant social messaging app that I used in China, too, has a few innovations of its own.

Scan a QR code, and lunch is paid for.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

There are "red envelopes" that let you share money with others, and a gambling feature with a 10,000 yuan limit (the currency is also known as RMB) -- that coverts to about $1,545, £1,075 or AU$1,990. Large tech companies will often send randomized or gamified bonuses to employees, Liu said. For example, one person might get 5 yuan, but one might get 5,000. The sum drops instantly into your WeChat wallet.

Mobile payments also go hand in hand with mobile food delivery, which, from my point of view, puts Amazon's same-day delivery and others to shame.

"Holy s***, you can get anything delivered same day," Deng said. "If it's a juice, it costs 30 yuan (about $4) and someone comes to my door and they hand it to me...and you don't pay for delivery or tips." (The juice itself costs 15 or 20 yuan, but some services have a 30 yuan minimum, Deng added.)

From a simple drink stand to fancy restaurants and shops, Alipay is everywhere in China.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Still, quick delivery like this is commonplace. Other services like Sherpa's (popular among expats, they say), Are You Hungry Yet? and Baidu (which is like Google) all offer speedy food delivery linked to instant, cashless and cardless payments. As a bonus, you can track moped-mounted delivery drivers to calculate when exactly they'll arrive.

"If it's electronics [that] I order before 11 a.m., I get it same-day," Liu said. "I've actually had something delivered in 8 minutes...We delivered, like, 200 chicken McNuggets for work," he added. "We had a contest."

With Alipay and WeChat wallet paving the way in China, it's only a matter of time before other global players vie for a similar cut of the action -- in China, and also worldwide.