Internationalization of the yuan began in earnest more than a decade ago, with the goal of eventually establishing it as a global reserve currency. At the time, Chinese policymakers sought a larger role for China's currency on the global stage in line with broader financial reform. Today, Beijing worries about the possibility of a full-blow financial war with the United States. In this case, dependency on the dollar for international payments is a vulnerability that China must address.
While Alipay and WeChat Pay maintain a duopoly over China's mobile payments market, that duopoly does not warrant the antitrust investigation reportedly in the works. To be sure, no competitor has emerged able to pose a credible challenge to the duopoly, but primarily for reasons out of the companies' control. Beijing's market barriers have been key enablers of Alipay and WeChat Pay's ability to dominate mobile payments. Together they control 94% of China's mobile payments market, Alipay 55% and WeChat Pay 39%, according to research firm Analysys.
China's payments market is so big that U.S. credit-card giants reckon it's better to arrive late to the party than never. Although China's fintech giants Ant Group and Tencent control about 90% of the US$27 trillion payments market, the remaining 10%, at US$2.7 trillion, is not exactly chump change. Among the U.S.'s big three card companies, Amex is the first to have its clearing license approved for China. That first mover's advantage, coupled with cooperation with numerous local banks and payments firms, could give Amex an edge over Visa and Mastercard.
Ant Group, formerly Ant Financial, has big ambitions for Southeast Asia. By taking strategic stakes in ascendant fintech startups across the region, Ant hopes to gain a foothold in the region's most important economies and perhaps lay the foundation for a regional payments ecosystem. If Ant's bid for a Singapore digital wholesale bank license is successful, the Hangzhou-based company will be poised to serve SMEs in the city-state and could eventually expand to other key regional economies where the financial inclusion rate is lower.
Macau is the only place in China's territory where gambling is legal. Chinese regulators want all the gaming in one place where they can keep a watchful eye over it. That's why the regulators don't like online casinos. Those are much harder to monitor. Located offshore, primarily in Southeast Asia, they aren't subject to Chinese law, even though Beijing forbids its citizens from gambling online. For Chinese authorities, the primary concern is that Chinese people will use online casinos to circumvent China's strict capital controls, which limit overseas remittances to US$50,000 a year. In some cases, criminal activity is involved.
Tencent has paid US$300 million for a 5% stake in Australia's Afterpay in a bid to strengthen its global fintech services and expand into smart retail. Afterpay allows shoppers to pay in four installments for purchases online or in retail stores. It claims to have 7.3 million users globally.
A growing number of global fintechs are eager to tap China's growing remittances business, the world's second largest after India. Given China's strict controls of money flows, the right local partner is important for gaining access to the market. Otherwise, regulatory hurdles are tough to surmount. In April, Singapore-based digital cross-border payments platform Nium announced it would partner with Geoswift, a counterpart headquartered in Hong Kong that specializes in clearing payments in and out of the Chinese mainland.
On March 26th, Chinese internet giant Tencent’s messaging app WeChat launched a test version of a virtual credit payment product called Fenfu (分付). Fenfu, which literally means "installment payment," allows users unable to get a credit card from a bank to spend money first and later pay it back with WeChat. There is no fee for using Fenfu, which is focused on offline consumption. The virtual credit payment product does not support WeChat transfer and red envelope function.
WeChat Pay has for several years been trying to develop its business outside of China. The first step is usually to partner with local merchants, making WeChat Pay available at points of sale where Chinese tourists shop. The second step is to target the local market. Thus far, WeChat has been more successful capturing Chinese tourists' wallet share overseas than in becoming a trusted local digital banking provider.
The novel coronavirus outbreak could slow WeChat Pay's global expansion considerably in the short term. Put simply, what happens if your international payments business primarily depends on Chinese tourists and suddenly there are none?
The novel coronavirus outbreak has crimped business activity across China, bringing the world's second largest economy to a virtual standstill. Yet amidst those unprecedented conditions, China's fintech giants have been busy developing digital solutions to mitigate COVID-19's impact. Some of the solutions are aimed squarely at the consumer economy, while others support government efforts to track people's health status.
Ant Financial's international expansion runs on two separate tracks. The first is a concerted push into emerging markets, especially in South Asia. In these countries, Ant is laying the groundwork to become a primary provider of digital financial services to the local market. In many cases, incumbents and digital infrastructure are both weak. Ant sees opportunities to leverage both its banking and technology acumen in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.
It's a very different story in Western Europe. There, Ant is making gradual inroads. The Chinese fintech giant says it wants to serve the local market, but its products are designed for Chinese consumers and businesses. European incumbents, meanwhile, are often entrenched. There's no easy way around that. Growing in Western Europe through acquisitions in local companies makes more sense than going it alone. With that in mind, Ant recently took a minority stake in Swedish payments platform Klarna, the most valuable fintech startup in Europe alongside the UK's Revolut. Klarna is currently valued at US$5.5 billion and says that it has 80 million customers globally.
China's fintech giants have been quietly expanding in emerging markets that are participating in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to deepen Beijing's economic ties with the world. South Asia has become a geographic area of focus for Ant Financial's Alipay and Tencent's WeChat Pay. Aside from India, major South Asian nations have few domestic digital payments options, and limited foreign fintech investment. They offer Alipay and WeChat Pay a chance to gain a first mover's advantage.
That's why WeChat Pay has been determined to enter Nepal. Of course, Chinese tourists do visit Nepal, which is known for its resplendent scenery, but in the long run that market is not as crucial as local consumers and small businesses. In early February, Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) approved WeChat Pay to operate in the South Asian country.
Reform is coming to China's US$27 trillion payments market belatedly. Very belatedly. U.S. credit-card giants have been trying to crack the market for years, to no avail. The market should have been open to them by 2006, per China's WTO commitments. But Beijing has hesitated to open its financial industry to foreign investment. It is finally signaling greater openness amidst the toughest business conditions China has faced in decades, perhaps since the beginning of economic reforms in 1978.
In mid-February, Mastercard announced it had received approval from the People's Bank of China (PBOC) to formally establish a bank-card clearing business in China. The green light for Mastercard comes three weeks after Beijing and Washington signed a phase-one trade deal to ease tensions in their strained economic relationship. American Express has also recently been granted approval to set up a bank-card clearing business in China. Both Mastercard and Amex are working with local Chinese partners in joint ventures.
The fintech arms of Chinese internet giants Alibaba and Tencent have fought each other to a standstill in their home market. Together, Ant Financial (through its e-wallet Alipay) and WeChat Pay each hold about 90% of China's US$25 trillion mobile payments market, each with roughly an equal share. The duopoly looks stable for now.