Mastercard wins initial approval to join China’s $27 trillion market

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Mastercard Inc. won approval to set up a bank card clearing business in China, gaining access to a $27 trillion payments market as part of the nation’s financial opening, though more regulatory steps will be required.

The announcement by the People’s Bank of China on Tuesday signals the country is moving ahead with the speedier opening of its financial system that was agreed on as part of the phase one trade deal with the U.S., even as it grapples with a virus outbreak.

Mastercard and its partner, NetsUnion Clearing Corp. will need to complete preparation work within a year, the central bank said.

Mastercard called the decision “encouraging,” with China being one of its most important markets. Further approval will also be needed after the preparations are over, it said in a statement.China is opening up its financial markets this year to allow foreign firms to set up fully owned operations to run insurance businesses, asset management and investment banking. Back in June 2015, it eased rules to allow foreign bank-card clearing providers to obtain licenses by setting up units or acquiring a local company, ending a monopoly by state-run China UnionPay Co.

As part of the trade deal, Chinese regulators said they would take no longer than 90 days to consider applications from providers of electronic-payments services such as Mastercard, Visa Inc. and American Express Co. Mastercard set up its majority-owned joint venture nearly a year ago.

Mastercard and Visa have long complained that their delayed entrance into China means they’ll be pitting themselves against large domestic players in a market that has seen mobile payments explode in recent years. Mobile transactions topped 190 trillion yuan ($27 trillion) in China in 2018, making it the world’s largest such market, according to iResearch.

China had 8.2 billion bank cards in circulation at the end of September, with 90% of them debit cards.

American Express Co. also cleared a key hurdle in its bid to accessing China after the central bank last month accepted its application to start a bank card clearing business. A decision to accept the application signals that it’s moving closer to final approval.

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