UnionPay card joins pack of top players

Since its founding in Shanghai 10 years ago, the firm has 2.9 billion cards in use, widened its reach to 135 countries and is challenging Visa

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 3:34am

Among the designer brands from Prada to Chanel at the Harrods flagship store in London, Li Yafang spotted a logo she knows from back home: the red, blue and green of UnionPay cards.

"It's very convenient that I can now use my UnionPay card" to shop abroad instead of carrying a stack of cash, said Li, who was buying the same £1,190 (HK$14,830) Prada Saffiano Lux handbag carried by the hit woman in the Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol movie. "I hope more places abroad will accept UnionPay."

Her wish is becoming reality as UnionPay, founded 10 years ago in Shanghai by the State Council and central bank, extends its reach.

With more plastic in circulation than any other payment network - 2.9 billion cards, or 45 per cent of the world's total last year - UnionPay is now accepted in 135 nations. Its rise is causing friction as it grabs market share from Visa and MasterCard, which it surpassed in customer spending in the first half of the year.

"UnionPay has absolute dominance in China, and it's now expanding beyond that to become a top global player," said James Friedman, an analyst at Susquehanna International. "Their numbers show they are already in the league of Visa and MasterCard."

A case brought by the United States government to the World Trade Organisation and ruled on in July challenged China's requirement that foreign card issuers - including Citigroup, which in August became the first Western bank in China to issue solely branded credit cards - must use UnionPay's network for yuan- denominated transactions.

The rules, along with those requiring all Chinese automated teller machines and merchants to use its network, prompted the WTO to order that China stop discriminating against foreign payment firms. The decision did not spell out specific measures, and the WTO also ruled against the US claim that UnionPay is an "across-the-board monopoly".

"It's difficult to say which side won after reading the WTO ruling as you basically can't tell what's actually going to happen," Friedman said.

A 2005 link-up with Discover Financial Services gave UnionPay access to a network that now reaches about the same number of US merchants as Visa and MasterCard.

On November 30, the firm set up UnionPay International to expand further. More than 10 million UnionPay cards have been issued by 65 lenders in 17 countries outside China, according to the company's website.

Debit-card transactions drive most of UnionPay's revenue. Its share of combined credit and debit-card purchase volume for the first half of this year rose to 23.8 per cent from 20.9 per cent a year earlier, propelling the company to No 2 globally behind Visa, while MasterCard's climbed to 21.7 per cent from 21.5 per cent, according to the Nilson Report, an industry newsletter. Visa's fell to 46 per cent from 48.9 per cent.

The share of spending volume at American Express, which UnionPay supplanted in 2010 as the third-biggest network by transactions processed, slid to 7.2 per cent from 7.5 per cent.

UnionPay cards issued by banks last year rose 22 per cent from 2010 to 2.9 billion, according to Nilson. Visa cards rose 4 per cent to 2.3 billion.

Visa's relationship with its Chinese competitor was similar to that of other firms, said Jeff Liao, the head of Visa China.

The company had provided technology to help China's payments industry and worked with UnionPay and the government on industry training programmes, Liao said. "We compete vigorously, but we also co-operate as appropriate on common industry issues," he said.

James Issokson, a MasterCard spokesman, declined to comment. UnionPay did not publish financial statements and interviews with its executives could not be arranged, spokesman Wang Kongping said.

"If you look forward, the world has a new player that wants to be involved," Diane Offereins, the head of payment services at Discover, said in Beijing in August. "We do see them making good progress in building that international network."

Chinese residents increased spending abroad through credit and debit cards last year by 67 per cent to 300 billion yuan (HK$372 billion), China Daily quoted UnionPay chairman Su Ning as saying in March.

Chinese spent a record US$7.7 billion on shopping in the US last year, US data shows.