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A pump attendant refuels a car at a gas station in Beijing on February 28. Photo: Reuters

Beijing clamps down on QR code mobile payments at gas stations despite a negligible chance of an explosion

  • Beijing joins several Chinese cities in regulating smartphone use at gas stations
  • Overseas authorities and experts say the risk of gas station fires caused by mobile phone use is negligible

One summer day in 2018 in China’s eastern province of Henan, a man had just finished filling up his car’s tank when he whipped out his smartphone. Like just about anyone who needs to pay for something in China these days, he pulled up a mobile payment app to have his personal QR code scanned. But then this seemingly innocuous action sparked an explosion, killing four people.

That’s how the story goes, anyway. The tale circulated widely online in China two years ago, but there’s just one problem: it’s not true.
Authorities confirmed that an explosion did occur a few metres away from the gas station, but it was caused by a natural gas leakage rather than the use of a smartphone. While this and similar rumours have been repeatedly debunked, the idea that smartphone use at the gas pump can touch off an explosion continues to linger.
Just this month, the Beijing Emergency Management Bureau issued new rules banning the use of smartphones near fuel dispensers at gas stations. The notice specifically named the scanning of QR code as a “hidden safety risk”. Users are advised to go indoors for mobile payments.
Since then, gas stations in the Chinese capital have reportedly switched to other payment methods that don’t involve QR codes, such as direct debit inside the gas companies’ own apps. Several other cities have followed suit.
China’s most popular mobile payment services, including WeChat Pay and Ant Financial’s Alipay, rely heavily on QR codes. Even the rivalling state-owned UnionPay offers QR code payment on top of NFC. But there are signs that China might want to explore the wider use of NFC. A leaked screenshot of the official app linked to country’s digital currency, currently being tested, suggested that money can be transferred between accounts by simply bringing two smartphones close together.

(Ant Financial is an affiliate of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post. )

How the QR code conquered China

Beijing’s new rules for gas stations follow a hearing conducted by the prosecutor’s office in the eastern city of Haining. An experiment carried out by experts revealed that when scanning QR codes, a smartphone emits stronger electromagnetic radiation than during phone calls, according to a social media post from China’s Fire and Rescue Department. The experts concluded that QR code scanning is potentially dangerous at gas stations.

While static electricity can ignite petrol vapours, there is scant evidence that phone-induced explosions are likely to occur near gas pumps.

An assessment commissioned by Canada’s Technical Standards and Safety Authority last year showed that in the previous 20 years, no fires reported at gas stations were attributed to mobile phone ignition. It estimated the odds this happening as one in 10 billion. Canadian authorities have since rolled back restrictions to allow mobile phones to be used for payment at gas dispensers.

Improving technology might be one reason why explosions at gas stations are becoming less common.

On a web page dedicated to fire safety at gas stations, the US-based Petroleum Equipment Institute wrote that static-related fires have reduced a lot in recent years thanks to the introduction of on-board vapour recovery systems in cars. These systems capture fuel vapours from the gas tank during refuelling.

It doesn’t mean that drivers at gas stations should use their smartphones without care. Experts warn that people should remain alert not to spill any petrol while they fuel up the car.

“The customer should be focused on the task of refuelling, not on using cell phones for calling or texting,” advised Canada’s Technical Standards and Safety Authority.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing bans payment by phone near petrol pumps