by Ryan Bozeman
January 15, 2018

In the near future, cash will be obsolete and all payments will be automatically made from your smart phone. To most people living in developed nations, the prospect of mobile payments still seems a bit far-fetched. You might be somewhat familiar with mobile payments, but a huge majority of people still pay their bills and daily necessities using their debit card or cash.

That is not the case in China.

In short order, mobile payments have taken hold in China and are quickly becoming the preferred payment method among younger generations. One day, cash may be obsolete in China, and perhaps around the world. Many Chinese use apps to pay for their monthly bills, groceries, and a growing number of miscellaneous purchases from their favorite retailers.

China’s obsession with mobile payments solution started with Alibaba launched AliPay, a PayPal-like service that quickly began to dominate China’s mobile payments market. Today, the market features several apps and is worth more than $5.5 trillion per year. China’s mobile payments sector is more than 50 times larger than that of the United States.

Currently, the bulk of the market share is split between AliPay and Tencent (AliPay and WeChat developers), with a handful of smaller apps vying for their own place in the market:

Mobile Payment Growth in China

Despite the fact that the mobile payment market in China is already the largest in the world, it still sees significant growth with each passing year as China’s 1.3 billion people begin to adopt the technology.

Take a look at the growth of mobile payment platforms in China:

There are numerous reasons why mobile payments have caught on so quickly there. To start, the increasing accessibility of smart devices in China has rapidly increased the potential market. Using the foundation that Alibaba laid in digital payment processing throughout the 2000s, the Chinese market was uniquely ready to embrace these types of solutions.

In most developed nations, debit cards and cash are the defacto ways to pay for transactions in person, providing huge convenience of carrying cash on your person. This is not the case in China.

Credit and debit cards were not nearly as accessible in China as they are in other nations. This, combined with cultural differences that make Chinese consumers less willing to take on debt, slowed their adoption rate. Although credit card networks did make inroads during the early 2000s, Chinese credit card usage rates began to slow in 2008, as AliPay began to emerge as a preferred payment method. Alibaba’s initial success made huge inroads into gaining the trust of a population that traditionally has very little faith in banks and payment processors.

Other reasons for the rapid adoption include the fact that business owners and consumers don’t have to worry about counterfeit currency using mobile payment solutions, as well as a reduced risk of being robbed. Counterfeit currency has been a much larger problem in China than in other developed nations around the world.

The limited availability of convenient payment methods like credit cards have hastened their adoption of mobile payment technologies. Although U.S. credit card networks recently received access to Chinese markets — something they have been trying to facilitate for decades — it may be too little too late.

AliPay and WeChat Set Sights on International Growth

With the two companies beginning to pull even with one another in China’s mobile payments market, they have set their sights on international growth. In 2014, WeChat opened up their payment system to foreigners that visit China, as well as Chinese tourists that are traveling abroad.

The international markets present a huge opportunity for both AliPay and WeChat, as well as for international retailers that would like to attract Chinese tourists. Initially, the companies have announced that they intend to focus on spreading their digital payments solutions throughout Asia, with long-term goals of entering Western markets. New Zealand and Australia present logical next steps, as both are popular destinations with Chinese tourists.

The heated battle between the two companies is already beginning to spread. In May 2016, WeChat’s parent company Tencent announced a partnership with Silicon Valley-based company Citcon. The partnership enabled millions of businesses to accept WeChat payments in the U.S. The deal is the first of many expected forthcoming partnerships designed to grow digital payment solution abroad.

The companies themselves aren’t the only ones that recognize the huge opportunity that China has to become an international leader in the space. In August, the Chinese central bank ordered the establishment of a nationwide clearinghouse for digital payment services. The change was designed to keep companies from allowing cash to bypass the bank’s clearing system, which made it difficult for regulators to track and monitor payments, leaving loopholes for money laundering and other crimes. But, it also opened the door for international payments and positioned AliPay and WeChat in a position to expand.

A New Future in Digital Payments

China is at the forefront of a blossoming industry that will change the way that companies around the world do business. To most, digital payments through smartphones probably seem like a logical innovation, but one that feels quite far off at the moment. China’s success in the market shows that there is a real future in the market and as they spread into new markets, adoption should come swiftly.

Until other nations follow suit, forward-thinking companies can gain a competitive edge by advertising the fact that they accept AliPay and WeChat payments to attract Chinese tourists. This is particularly impactful with the younger generations who often use digital payments for a much larger percentage of their daily transactions. Countries like New Zealand and Australia, who see high levels of Chinese tourism, are particularly well-positioned to take advantage.

In the future, we may look back on today’s China as a successful testing ground for mobile payment technology. The digital payments industry has already grown to more than $5.5 trillion in the country, and with the Chinese government and companies setting their sights on international growth, we may be at the cusp of a worldwide boom period.

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