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.
American Express has been trying to enter the China market since before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. As China's financial reform stalled, so did the US card giant's prospects in the world's largest consumer market. Now that Washington and Beijing have reached a phase-one trade deal, AmEx is finally poised to start doing business in China. In early January, shortly before the trade deal was signed, the People's Bank of China (PBOC) accepted AmEx's application to begin China operations.
Before fintech took China by storm, visitors to the country only had to remember one simple rule for payments: Make sure to carry sufficient cash. International credit and debit cards often were not accepted outside of five-star hotels and high-end department stores. Inevitably, there was some hassle involved, especially as international bank cards didn't always work at local ATMs. Ironically, now that it's much easier to withdraw cash from local Chinese ATMs with a global bank card, Chinese merchants prefer cashless payments. The trend in China is to swipe a smartphone to pay for just about any ordinary transaction: a coffee at Starbucks, a restaurant meal, a taxi, a bottle of water from a convenience store. It's a breeze as long as you have a Chinese bank account and the requisite digital wallets from Alipay and WeChat Pay on your handset.
Therein lies the problem for visitors to China. Many of them do not have a Chinese bank account, nor do they have WeChat Pay or Alipay installed on their smartphones. With cash being increasingly unwelcome, problems can arise easily. For instance, a shop may accept cash, but because so few transactions are done in cash, not be able to give a shopper proper change. If the merchant doesn't accept international credit cards, then the shopper is out of luck.
How late is too late? That's the key question as PayPal prepares to enter China's digital payments market with the acquisition of the Chinese state-owned online payments provider GoPay. PayPal took the 70% stake in GoPay through one of its local subsidiaries, Yinbaobao. When the deal closes - expected in the fourth quarter - PayPal will become the first foreign online payments provider in China.
If Chinese media reports are correct, Tencent's digital wallet will soon have a virtual credit card. The Chinese internet giant is reportedly developing a payment product called Fenfu for WeChat Pay, with an expected fourth quarter launch. Fenfu would allow WeChat Pay to compete directly in the virtual credit segment with its rivals' products.
Chinese payments giant UnionPay is on the road again - the Belt and Road, that is. Constrained by slowing economic growth at home, UnionPay is aligning itself with some of the key emerging markets involved in China's high-profile global infrastructure initiative. In recent months, UnionPay has boosted its presence in the United Arab Emirates, Kenya and Nepal with a focus on mobile banking, pre-paid payments and cross-border payments.
Chinese fintech giant Alipay has been on a torrid expansion streak, entering global markets from the U.S. and Europe to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Now Alipay is pushing even further into emerging markets as it establishes a partnership with fintech startup Flutterwave to provide digital payments services between the Middle Kingdom and Africa.
China's UnionPay can't beat them, so it might as well join them: The payments giant is entering a partnership with UK-based fintech Tribe Payments that will allow banks and fintechs to issue its credit cards in Europe from July. Facing intense competition from internet finance titans Alipay and WeChat Pay at home, UnionPay is keen to drum up new business abroad. What better way than to cooperate with a rising British fintech?
One of the great ironies about China for multinational firms is that they feel they have to be there, but the gatekeeper doesn't always let them in. This paradigm is especially evident in the financial services sector, where foreign firms control less than 2% of the market 18 years after China entered the World Trade Organization and promised to dismantle trade and investment barriers.
If your competitors are there, do you need to be there? Mastercard thinks so. Along with Visa and American Express (AmEx), it is trying to gain a foothold in China following Beijing's announcement in 2017 that U.S. credit-card companies could apply for licenses. In late 2018, Beijing approved the first such bank card transaction clearing license when it signed off on a joint venture between AmEx and Chinese fintech firm Lianlian.