China bank goes staffless at a branch; robots replace tellers

April 17, 2018 10:30
Young people in China are becoming comfortable with the idea of a paperless and people-less banking environment, but the elderly have some reservations. Photo:

At mid-morning on a busy street in central Shanghai, Liang Min, a salesman, has entered a branch of the China Construction Bank (CCB) to withdraw money. "I need 20,000 yuan,” he says. He is talking not to a teller but 'Xiao Long' (little dragon), a robot who greets customers at the entrance.

Welcome to the first branch of a bank in china without tellers. Customers enter through electronic turnstiles using an identity or bank card. Then a machine certifies who they are through face recognition. Then they choose between an assortment of ATMs and other machines which enable them to conduct more than 90 percent of the cash and non-cash business of a conventional bank. These include opening an account, transferring money, foreign exchange, gold investment and wealth management products.

A wealthy client who insists on talking to a real person can reserve a private room to talk to a relationship manager via video.

"You are looking at the future,” said Liang. "This will be the trend of the future – branches without staff. For myself, I conduct all my banking affairs online and through machines. I do not need people, just as I almost do not need cash. Many young people are like me. But my parents and older people find the machines bewildering and want to see real people."

This branch of the Construction Bank is the first in the whole country to do without tellers. But it does have well-built security men to watch people going in and out. It is on the ground floor of a building in Jiujiang Road, in downtown Shanghai. On the second and third floors are conventional offices where you find clients and staff serving them.

"This is an experiment," said Ms Liu, a bank employee. "We will see how it goes before deciding whether to extend this to other branches.” The new branch has attracted great media interest, with reporters and the curious coming to take a look.

CCB has installed 1,600 'smart' machines at its 360 branches in Shanghai. According to figures from the China Banking Association, there are 802,600 self-service machines in 228,700 bank branches nationwide; of these, 113,900 are ‘smart’ machines which offer services beyond cash deposits and withdrawals.

They are part of the automation that is sweeping china’s financial industry. Many people in Shanghai no longer carry cash. They do all their transactions via mobile telephones and Alipay. This includes taking buses, train and the subway and paying for restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores and films and paying money to another person. The state banks, like CCB, are facing increasing competition from the financial services offered by online and mobile banking providers.

Liang said young people like himself are comfortable with this paperless and people-less world. "I feel all this is safe. I do not know of any major security breach of Alipay. I feel comfortable on the issue of security. But hackers are very sophisticated nowadays, so we cannot take anything for granted.”

But this financial revolution is not to everyone’s liking. Wang Wei-ling, an elderly Shanghai lady walking past the bank branch, said that she still carries cash for her daily transactions. "I prefer to hold my money and see what I am paying for. Who knows, in 10 or 20 years, shops in Shanghai may not accept cash at all!”

She said she uses ATMs to withdraw money but likes to talk to bank staff for other services. “The robot in this branch speaks only Mandarin. I prefer to talk Shanghainese,” she said.

The electronic revolution is sweeping many industries, not only finance. Over the objections of the city’s cab drivers, the Shanghai government has authorized the use of Uber-style taxis which customers order on their mobiles. The traditional cab drivers have lost much of their business. There has been a drastic fall in the number of street side stalls selling newspapers and magazines. Young people only read news and information on mobile devices.

The use of robots is spreading rapidly, in hotels, restaurants and factories. According to the International Federation of Robotics, robots sales in china this year will reach 150,000, nearly three times the level of 57,000 in 2014. There is much room to grow – china has 36 robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers, against 478 in South Korea, 315 in Japan, 292 in Germany and 164 in the US.

China is pouring resources into the development of electric cars and driverless cars and artificial intelligence (AI).

"Will I have this job in 10 years’ time?” wondered Huang Jun, a city taxi driver. “Once the robots have artificial intelligence, they will proliferate. They will not need us humans anymore, and will wipe us out."

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.