Not long after I moved into a new apartment building in Chengdu, a city in southwestern China, I noticed an unusually large clump of residents gathered around the bulletin board at the front of our complex. If the housing estate where I live is a relic of state socialism (the Fanghua Street Nuclear Power Institute of China Dormitory is owned by a danwei, a government-controlled work unit, which once provided free housing to its employees), the method through which information is disseminated to residents is equally antiquated. Anything from electricity stoppages to pension information is announced exclusively via paper notices tacked to the board.
Curious to see what had generated such interest, I squeezed in to take a look. A stamped letterhead from the Nuclear Power Institute of China (NPIC) Insurance and Services Centre notified us that our electricity and water bill payment system was changing.
This was indeed a momentous occasion. While most of urban China now pays their utility bill via the ubiquitous mobile payment app, Alipay, our payment method had remained stuck in the 1980s. Four times a year, all residents of NPIC housing estates were compelled to trek out to the work-unit utilities office a 25-minute walk away to pay cash for their electricity and water usage over the previous three months, calculated retroactively according to data collected by the work unit. This process typically involved standing in line at the utilities office, open only between the hours of 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m., for a chance to fork over a few hundred RMB through a barred window to a stony-faced NPIC employee.
Reading the notice, I felt a little tinge of disappointment that my first utility-payment day would also be my last. As strange as it sounds, I had looked forward to standing in line and chatting with my neighbours. The rise in recent years of e-commerce and mobile payment has transformed administrative tasks from plodding inconveniences into a series of seamless transactions – almost too seamless, I sometimes feel. It is now not only possible but common to order a gourmet meal, send a package and pay your utility bill without leaving your apartment. In Beijing, where I lived before moving to Chengdu, I often found myself craving the kind of regular, mundane face-to-face interactions one becomes accustomed to while living in a city.
The next day I reported to the work-unit utilities office in north Yulin. Like many of China’s older, inner-city neighbourhoods, Yulin is still made up mostly of work-unit housing estates put up in the 1980s and 1990s, when the government took steps to counteract the critical housing shortage of the Mao years by building huge numbers of dwellings. Because they were thrown up so fast, these five-to-six storey walk-ups are of invariably low quality. Winter is the worst. My flat has no central heat and my hot-water heater breaks down at least once a month. Thanks to the building’s thin concrete walls, it’s often colder inside than it is outside.
But their poor quality (and small size) means that their prices have remained fairly stable even as the rest of China’s urban real-estate market overheats. This has resulted in a diversity among residents that is increasingly hard to come by thanks to the ossifying socioeconomic segregation initiated by the neoliberal housing reforms of the late 1990s. In line I waited with a mix of elderly retired NPIC employees, young families who choose the apartments for their proximity to key schools, and twenty-somethings like myself who choose the housing estates for their affordability and convenient location.
Before I overly romanticise this state of affairs, let me be clear that not everyone in line felt as warmly about this communal activity as me. It was a work day, and people were in a hurry. One middle-aged man, a schoolteacher, mentioned that he’d had to take time off work to come to the utilities office. I let him cut me in line. Eventually I made it to the front, paid my bill (320 RMB or about $45) and received my new electricity card.
The electricity card was less a leap forward than a hop. Far from the convenience of Alipay, I would still have to go in person to the nearby mini mart to add money (cash only) to my card, after which I would swipe it in the newly installed meters outside our building.
This system, I soon learned, was not without its social aspects. Not long after I got my electricity card, the elderly couple who live on the first floor of my building got into the habit of making daily inspections of the meters. One day, on my way outside, the old woman frantically stopped me – my electricity was about to run out, she said.
I checked my meter; she was right. I thanked her and went back upstairs to get cash.