Friday, February 03, 2012

More toothgrind

After a couple of years or so, I'd grown deeply weary of the Bank of China (long queues, limited English-language service, negligible online service, additional charges for everything, and an uncompromisingly xenophobic attitude towards issuing credit cards to foreign citizens), and was looking around for a replacement.

One of my work contacts in Hong Kong recommended the Bank of East Asia - which, she said, had good customer service, excellent online banking in English, and would be easy for her to arrange payments into.

Jolly good - let's try that.

Well, I was initially stymied by the rarity and obscurity of their locations. None of the Chinese friends I asked knew of anyone who banked with BEA, or had any idea where one of their branches might be. I eventually tracked one down right in the middle of Beijing, just a few minutes' walk from the Dongsi Shitiao subway stop - but it is very well hidden in the basement of a nondescript office block, down a concealed and unsignposted flight of stairs. However, this could be a good thing, because there's never anyone in there. Both regular members of the counter staff speak reasonable English. And it is a very convenient location.

Unfortunately, my first attempt to open an account with them just after Christmas was stymied by their insistence that I needed proof of address (in the form of my 'Temporary Residence Registration Certificate' from the local cop shop) as well as proof of identity. No-one has ever asked for that piece of documentation before (and I've opened accounts with at least a dozen different banks during my time in Beijing)! And the really galling thing was that I usually keep that certificate in the back of my passport, but had deliberately removed it just before setting out (because I didn't want to risk losing it: it's a flimsy piece of paper that falls out of anything - wallet, passport, pocket - all too easily). Bugger!

So, anyway, I tried my luck again the other day, and this time everything went swimmingly. It took me barely half an hour to open an account with them (which is about the minimum you can expect to take over even the simplest of transactions in a Chinese bank).

Now, let's see about that much-praised "cyber-banking" facility...

Not so good. I've been given a 'personal security key' on a USB stick, but not given any instructions on how to use it. The bank's website does not contain any instructions on how to use it. Hmm, perhaps this doesn't matter so much, because I appear to be able to log into my account without using it. So, here I am, in my account, poking around and looking at my balance and all my user details without employing my security key. This is not quite as secure as I'd hoped! And there's still no 'help' page to guide me through what the security key is for, and how and when I should use it.

But then I find I apparently need to use it if I want to carry out any kind of 'transaction', such as changing my username or password. Good, that's more like it! Let's try that.

Oops - I am being told that I need to download some software for the USB key. I had assumed the software was all pre-installed but apparently not. I find I am unable to download anything on to the USB key, because it is 'invisible' to my computer - not displayed as an available storage address. Odd. Well, OK then, I'll just try downloading it directly to my computer to see what that does (there are NO INSTRUCTIONS as to how or why to download this stuff). Well, it's given me a nice little icon on my desktop, but still no instructions for use. But I imagine it must interact with the USB key somehow, and I'll probably get pop-up prompts when I need them - right? Er, wrong. Every transaction I attempt fails. Usually (but not always) the error message that foils me announces that I haven't downloaded the necessary USB software yet. WTF?? Oh yes, I have. Is the website (and/or the USB key) not recognising my dowloaded software for some reason? Is there some further software I need to download? Is there some software I need to download from or upload to the USB key? Do I need to do something to activate the software or the USB key?

Well, it's a complete mystery. There are absolutely no guidelines on the site. The 24-hour online customer help is in Chinese only. The e-mail enquiries service (which does appear to cater for queries in English) is evidently only available during office hours. And the character limit is less than a Twitter message, so I have to send five or six e-mails to try to explain my problem. And they all disappear from my Outbox after a few hours this morning, without generating any reply. Grrrr.

Ah, but this lunchtime, a very nice young woman with excellent English calls me to try to help me with my problem. Although her help is more geared toward reassuring me that I won't really need to use the cyber-banking much anyway than answering my questions about how I am supposed to use this confounded USB key. I eventually manage to tease out of her that the USB key probably doesn't work with my browser. But by then, we have chatted for 5 minutes on my mobile and she has exhausted my pre-paid credit (you have to pay for incoming calls in China); so, we have to continue our discussion by SMS, before my credit runs so low that I can't even send messages any more.

It turns out she thinks this system will only work with Internet Explorer 8.

Oh dear. There is a reason I don't use Explorer (apart from a generalized hatred of Microsoft): it's glitchy, unstable, and unworkably SLOW.

And I'm not even sure what version I have. So, I'd better check. Easier said than done. It's not identified in the browser window. It's not identified in the desktop icon. It's not disclosed when you click 'Properties'. It doesn't appear at all under the 'Add/Remove Programs' list (making it tricky to uninstall!). And when I finally find the program file... still no obvious marker as to which generation it is. Fortunately, just a moment's research online leads to the knack of unlocking the browser's secret identity: I have IE9.

I use my last text message to contact the nice lady at the bank to ask if this will be OK.

She takes a long time to get back to me (I imagine she's checking with someone, bless her). Eventually, she says... NO.

So, I have to work out how to uninstall IE9, and then find somewhere online that's still offering a download of the retro IE8 (not a very easy task, it would seem at first glance)??? Oiveh.

But it turns out the nice lady was mistaken. The system is compatible with IE9: it does recognise the downloaded software and give me the appropriate pop-up prompts to use the USB key. It's just UNWORKABLY BLOODY SLOW.

I think I need to go and chuck rocks at a panda for an hour or two to unwind. I wonder what time Beijing Zoo closes in the winter?


John said...

I read the FAQ for their "cyberbanking" (makes you want to say it in a loud reverberating voice!) service and felt quite anxious myself afterwards and it's not even my money!
China still has a huge reliance on the Trident layout engine (the underlying technology behind IE) which is odd for a poor country, you'd think they'd have embraced Linux even over piracy but I digress. To suggest downgrading is preposterous as if vendor lock-in wasn't bad enough but that was the least of my concerns. Not only do they not provide the link to the driver for the USB stick thingy but suggest you turn off one of IE's security features while you're arguably doing the task that requires the most security you possibly can do at home on a computer!! Silly China!

Froog said...

Well, I think the only thing I'll ever want to do is check on my balance, and I can do that from any browser (although without the security key).

China is pretty thoroughly pro-Microsoft. I think Bill cut a deal with the government here, giving them a bunch of stuff cheap or free to get them dependent.