Could you go 48 hours without the internet in China? This SCMP reporter tried

The alarm on my smartphone was set for 8am on Saturday, which is rare these days as I stopped using my phone as a clock when I bought a smart speaker in the middle of last year. Powered by artificial intelligence technology, the smart speaker understands my verbal requests for a musical wake-up call.

But I am not allowed to use the smart speaker this weekend after accepting an assignment to live without internet access for two days in Shenzhen, the technology hub of China where hardly anyone is not connected through their smartphone or a computer at home.

The smartphone has become an integral part of my body, like with most educated people in China. I can forget to bring a lot of things, but not my smartphone. It is in my hand or pocket at all times. Even while sleeping, the phone is within arm’s reach of my bed – charging to be ready for the next day.

I have become so dependent on my smartphone that it pervades almost every aspect of life, whether paying bills, calling for a ride, making restaurant reservations or booking tickets for movies or concerts. I can stay home the whole day and order daily necessities online and have them delivered to the front door. 

But everything will change for one weekend when my smartphone will be used only to make calls and send text messages, just like the first feature phone in my life – the Motorola V8088 – which dates back to 2001.

Even while sleeping, the phone is within arms reach of my bed – charging ready for the next day

That means no WeChat or Alipay, no reading news apps or playing games – no app usage at all because they are all internet-based services. It was going to be tough because these apps occupy most of my waking time, whether I am working or not. 

Realising the challenge would not be easy, I made a few preparations to better survive the internet-free 48 hours.

On Friday night I post a message on my WeChat moment – something similar to a Facebook message that is only available to my WeChat friends – saying I will not be able to reply to any WeChat messages during the weekend. I also called my parents, telling them I would be doing the no-internet challenge and can only be reached by phone over the weekend.

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I also download more than 30 episodes of my favourite TV series to my iPad, to ensure I have something to watch if I have no better plans.

In the week before, I arrange several meetings with friends for Saturday and Sunday. They are aware of my participation in the assignment and promise to contact me only by phone.

With the preparations in place, here is what happened during my 48 hours without the internet:

First thing on Saturday morning I run to withdraw cash from the ATM. The amount of cash in my wallet has not changed for several weeks as I hardly use cash any more. Mobile payment services like WeChat Pay and Alipay are accepted by almost all shops in Shenzhen, and many young people have even stopped taking their wallets with them.

To get around, I took public transport like buses and the metro using a stored-value transportation card as I was forbidden to use apps to call for a ride. I could hail a taxi on the street but I do not want to pay with cash and receive change. Coins are too heavy to carry around, and I have not even seen them for a long while.

I gave up on the idea of watching movies in the theatre as I realised I could not access the screening schedule without the internet. If I go to the box office directly I might have to wait a while before the movie starts. Plus, the walk-in price for cinemas is normally double mobile ticket-booking apps.

On Saturday afternoon, I played mahjong with three other friends in Shenzhen. It might be the only game that keeps both hands of the players too busy to touch their smartphones.

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I had dinner with friends on Saturday and Sunday night. I felt bored as I watched them check their smartphones throughout the meal. But the good news was that both meals were paid for by my friends using WeChat. I offered to pay my share, but they did not want to take cash.

I felt bored as I watched them check their smartphones throughout the meal.

I did not watch the TV series downloaded to my iPad as I decided to come home late during the weekend to avoid the feeling that I had nothing to do at night. On normal evenings I might video chat with close friends and family, watch live-streaming apps, play mobile games, and watch the playback of TV programmes – all of which require the internet and were prohibited during the weekend.

But still, in the end I failed the test as I had to check my WeChat a couple of times during the weekend to contact friends for the prearranged meeting as they did not have my phone number. During the past two or three years, WeChat has basically become the primary communication tool for people in China. We have stopped exchanging name cards or taking down phone numbers; instead we just scan QR codes to add WeChat friends.

If my WeChat app ever crashes, I may not even be able to get in touch with most of the people I have met in the past few years. What a scary thought! But come Monday, I was able to reconnect to the internet, something I do not want to lose again.

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