China opens its markets to foreign bank card companies

BEIJING (Reuters) - China will allow foreign payment card companies to operate in the country under rules issued on Tuesday, potentially giving groups like Visa Inc V.N and MasterCard MA.N access to its 55-trillion-yuan ($8.4 trillion) card payment market.

A Chinese national flag flutters at the headquarters of a commercial bank on a financial street near the headquarters of the People's Bank of China, China's central bank, in central Beijing November 24, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

Visa and MasterCard, the world’s two largest credit and debit card companies, have been lobbying for more than a decade for direct access to China’s cards market, which is projected to become the world’s biggest by 2020.

Bank card consumer transactions reached 55 trillion yuan in 2015, accounting for 48 percent of total social consumption, the People’s Bank of China said in a statement. The market is dominated by state-run China UnionPay Co Ltd.

The rules issued by the central bank and the China Banking Regulatory Commission require that applicants hold 1 billion yuan ($152.2 million) in registered capital in a local company.

The foreign bank card companies must also meet China’s national security and cyber security standards and be locally based.

The rules came more than a year after the State Council, China’s cabinet, said China would allow foreign firms to operate bank card clearing businesses.

This aimed to address a 2012 ruling by the World Trade Organisation that found China was discriminating against U.S. credit card companies.

“In the future there will be more diverse participants in the domestic bank card market, with many bank card brands competing on a level field,” the central bank said in a Q&A published after it released the rules.

Qualified foreign companies can apply to set up bank card businesses by meeting the same standards and processes required by domestic companies, the central bank said.

Foreign investors are also allowed to acquire domestic card clearing firms after passing a security review, it said.

Once companies have submitted their applications, the central bank will have 90 days to decide whether to grant an approval. Companies that get a green light will have a year to set up their operations.

Visa said in a statement: “We are reviewing the new regulations and look forward to the opportunity to formally submit our license application for early consideration.”

MasterCard spokesman Seth Eisen, in an email, called the decision an important step in a vital market for the company. “We’re ready to build on our partnerships with local banks, consumers, businesses and government,” he said.

A Shanghai-based UnionPay spokesman said the company supported the rules and would compete with other firms fairly and by law under the same supervision.

Reporting by Shu Zhang and Matthew Miller, additional reporting by David Henry in New York; editing by Jane Merriman and Richard Chang