The Technological Era: The Case of Suzhou, China

My friend told me over the weekend about her English homework: a personal essay on a place to which she has multiple feelings. This prompted my own thinking. Having not written a single Commentary article last term, I was determined to write one this week and generate such a place in my own life. I now have an answer: Suzhou, China, to which I hold a long-established adoration — yet recently, also disappointment due to excessive technological modernization in the city.

Suzhou is a city prized for its dual identity as both a “modern” and “ancient” region. Established in 514 B.C.E., the city preserves its classical gardens while being a site of technological advancement. As a kid, I loved visiting the gardens — these havens of miniature mountains and river streams — and climbing over their metallic rockeries. At the same time, I accessed Suzhou’s modern infrastructure, taking music lessons in skyscrapers on the weekends. I adored the city.

When I left for the United States of America in fifth grade, daily life in Suzhou turned into annual visits over summer break. During my middle school years, visits back to Suzhou simply felt like a return home. I had only left the city for less than three years, and there weren’t any truly noticeable differences except the increasing usage of mobile phones, QR codes, and online payment that I also saw elsewhere in the world.

The pandemic stopped my family from visiting Suzhou. When I visited the city for the first time since seventh grade this past summer, I realized that I no longer felt the same sense of familiarity toward the city as I used to. It’s been seven years since I left, and now, I look at my childhood home with a more critical eye.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the Suzhou I saw last year, and the city I visited in seventh grade was the use of mobile technology. Though I had begun noticing its increasing presence in China many years ago, I did not correctly predict how pervasive it had become in just four years. Restaurants I stepped into — ice cream parlors that existed long before I was born — had adopted a mobile-only payment method and abandoned their physical menus, only publishing them online instead. In Subway stations, cash registers that originally accepted both cash and credit card were replaced by machines that only accepted contactless payment. Like natural selection, taxis that randomly roamed the road, trying to find passengers who needed a ride, diminished while rides that were booked in advance through apps grew in numbers. Even tickets to the classical gardens had to be reserved online. It seemed to me that Suzhou had modernized too quickly.

I understand that the pandemic promoted these technological changes exponentially. Yet, while they continue to bring convenience to many citizens, what are the consequences? Those who do not have phones can no longer live life normally: they cannot order or pay at a restaurant, call a cab to get home, or catch the subway. Those who have phones, but only flip phones, are affected as well. Those with smartphones and other smart devices but inconsistent access to Wi-Fi cannot complete their payments or book their reservations. Suzhou is a beautiful place, yet visitors who do not have WechatPay or Alipay — the two biggest payment methods in China today — cannot fully appreciate its attractions (as of today, tickets to 苏州博物馆,沧浪亭,狮子林,拙政园,留园,网师园, and 藕园 are mostly purchased through these platforms). To me, these advancements are developed based on an ideal world where citizens have access to resources equally. In reality, such a world does not exist, and those without access to these resources are ultimately excluded as the city continues to advance.

As a young adult, it is easier for me to adapt to technological advancements. Yet, when I think of my grandparents and the older generation, I wonder if these advancements are necessary. Shouldn’t technologies, if not completely inclusive, at the very least improve some people’s lives while preserving the lives of others? The elderly, though perhaps not needing to visit their own tourist attractions or to try the best restaurants in town, are the age group most targeted by these developments. They are the ones who have crafted Suzhou’s history, yet now, the city’s modernization has changed the way they navigate through their own hometown.

I hope that the city will slowly return to its original state as the effects of the pandemic dwindle. I hope that Suzhou will begin to rely less on the use of mobile phones for daily life and that all kinds of payment — cash, credit card, WeChat, and Alipay — will again be accepted. I want the elder generation and all other locals, regardless of social class, to feel included as the city advances, and for tourists to feel welcomed. I happily found that hospital amenities could still be accessed like they once were before the pandemic. By reintroducing this inclusivity in other necessary platforms, such as public transportation, we can begin to make this change. Ultimately, I wish for Suzhou’s beauty to be accessed, appreciated, and admired by all — again.