China is close to releasing a national digital currency. How would such a currency run by a central bank work? China is where paper money was first invented a thousand years ago, and it might be where paper as a proxy for value also fades from the world stage.
China has banned borderless cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, but it is a move the country may come to regret. Until recently, China was the world’s largest market for virtual currency and digital currencies trading and China’s ban on Bitcoin came abruptly. Some experts think Beijing’s intention is to regulate the market, not hobble it—but the crackdown may last for a while. The future for cryptocurrencies in China is unclear, because the Chinese government is also backing the underlying blockchain technology. Will cryptocurrencies come to light again?
In the eyes of insiders, if you are not talking about “AI and Finance,” then you risk being left behind–just as stubborn holdouts in another era were stranded when they failed to accept the Internet. Traditionally, finance has had two core functions: to lower transaction costs and to improve asset pricing. The use of the Internet has undermined the first by enabling more direct transactions, and AI is now disrupting the second by improving the speed and accuracy of asset pricing. Threatened by this are services like asset allocation, investment advisory and insurance pricing, which affects not only banks, but also investment and insurance firms.
Bitcoin, a virtual currency traded online, was not invented in China, yet China is where 80% of the virtual “coins” are minted and 90% of the transactions are made. Currently, the global bitcoin market amounts to some $14.5 billion, roughly the same amount of money as Apple’s European back taxes. If the virtual currency’s popularity continues to grow, decisions made by Chinese investors and regulators may determine whether bitcoin fades to a historical footnote, like Napster or the eight-track tape, or becomes the silicon cornerstone of a new global financial order. A combination of factors thrust China into this decisive role.
The upsurge in mobile transaction services used through smartphones is at the heart of a sudden expansion of the online financial services industry in China. This is a diverse and dynamic marketplace with investment, small-lending companies, peer to peer (P2P) lending, and most recently the emergence of the first batch of online-only banks: MYbank, 30% owned by Ant Financial (founded by Alibaba), and WeBank, which is 30% owned by Tencent. These new services provide a much-needed expansion of financial access for Chinese consumers and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), that have long been underserved by the state-dominated banking system. What lies ahead for China’s online banks?
Currently the most valuable fintech company in China, Alibaba’s Ant Financial owns a myriad of businesses: China’s largest payment tool AliPay and a variety of financial services in areas like banking, funds, insurance, credit scoring systems, etc. With over 400 million active users, it has ambitions to expand further into the Chinese hinterland as well as into global markets—something never done by Chinese financial companies before. How will Ant realize its elephantine goals? What is the logic behind its diverse businesses and which one is the focus? Can Ant become the Taobao of the financial industry? We offer some answers.
Ten years from now, business historians will offer a number of reasons financial services had changed so radically since 2016, from general advances in technology to the regulatory reaction to the crash of 2008. But one factor appears likely to stand out above all the others: the blockchain, a distributed database that serves as the backend of the virtual currency Bitcoin. Today, financial services are investing billions in blockchain technology. Many believe it will lead to a radical simplification of banking and payment systems everywhere—a world where money and other assets take nanoseconds to transfer, cannot be lost or stolen, and require no intermediaries to process.
In a short space of time Alibaba’s Ant Financial has created—and scaled—a diverse set of financial products and services: from online payments to cloud computing and data services.
The government has finally issued guidelines to regulate China’s internet finance industry, but the devil may lie in the yet-to-come details.
In this series on The Chinapreneurs, we look at entrepreneurs’ experiences in starting a business in China. In the first one, Kevin Zhao, CEO of Wangli Bank, elaborates on starting up in China’s fast-changing internet finance sector.