The Chinese market has long been tough for foreign companies to break into, but over the past five years the cultural and political environment has changed in a way that presents some fresh possibilities.
There are still cautionary tales two years ago, Yahoo Inc. was famously caught off-guard when Alibaba, in which it owned a 40% stake, transferred ownership of its Alipay unit to adhere to Chinese payments licensing requirements.
But in general, the Chinese government is more willing to allow companies from other countries to infiltrate the market if the service helps Chinese consumers, says Fred Sum, CEO of PayEase.
PayEase is a Chinese payment service provider, offering mobile payments via text message, online banking and at the point of sale.
"Offshore operations are slowly becoming more common and it's not so difficult to get into it opens up a brand new market," Sum says.
But as a company coming into China, be ready to move fast, Sum says. "Anything that happens in China will happen much more quickly than what you're thinking."
Sum and other payments executives discussed the opportunities in China this week at the Money2020 event in Las Vegas.
While China's payments players are focused on making the consumer experience more convenient, business customers haven't seen as much attention, says Vijay Dwarakanath, manager of global payments at Microsoft. But business customers are willing to pay quite a bit of money for new services, he says.
U.S. companies, including payments companies, have increasingly begun developing enterprise products instead of consumer-facing products. These business products could have a big appeal in China.
Consumers in China care about price, convenience and variety, says Tom Zhang, senior director of business development at Alipay.
But there are impediments to fulfilling that demand.
While Chinese consumers browse and compare prices via their mobile devices, they typically do not complete those purchases on their phones.
Some Chinese consumers don't trust their smartphones with their payments data, but companies in China are working to overcome that psychological barrier, Zhang says. There will be a "breakthrough of the transaction model in the next one to two years...to transition from traffic-only to the transaction," he says.
There is an opportunity to bring digital payments to China since "credit cards are useless in China for online transactions," Zhang says. Instead, most consumers pay by cash or certified check on delivery, he says.
Indeed, eBay and its PayPal subsidiary have already signaled their intention to become significant players in China.
"If you look at the Chinese opportunities there are 40 million small businesses in China and only 5 million of them are actually exporting goods online," David Marcus, PayPal's president said in a July interview with Bloomberg News. "So there's a huge upside opportunity."
Eighty-four percent of Chinese consumers buy goods from U.S. websites, according to a study commissioned by PayPal.
But there are challenges to entering the Chinese market still. International players might need to partner with existing companies that Chinese consumers trust.
Mobile carriers in ChinaChina Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobilemight be good partners for payments players since the three major carriers have money transmitter licensing and one of them recently bought a bank, says Sum.