China Payments Research

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.

Years ago, traditional POS machines only provided basic processing that were more convenient than cash transactions, but provided little help when it came to sales analysis. Smart POS started gaining traction in 2014 and grew rapidly as merchants juggled many different payment channels. A smart POS can process QR code, bank card, Quick Pass, as well as analyze business data, maintain membership details and combine online–offline sales. In December, UnionPay and Alipay both launched new acquiring products.

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