Beijing pushes ahead with opening up its financial sector despite trade tensions

  • ”I hope in three years' time, there will be a number of foreign ventures qualified for full-license, full-ownership operation in the financial sector,” Premier Li Keqiang told a group of business leaders at a World Economic Forum conference.
  • Recent financial reform efforts that Chinese authorities have taken include allowing individual foreign investors in the country to buy mainland-traded stocks, known as A shares, and removing limits of foreign holdings in banks.
The entrance of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC).
Zhang Peng | LightRocket |Getty Images
The entrance of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC).

China is moving ahead with planned financial reform, despite pressure from a slowing economy and rising tensions with its largest trading partner.

"Our goal going forward is to further open up the financial services sector," Premier Li Keqiang told a group of business leaders Thursday at a World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin, China, according to a transcript from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Just as we have removed foreign ownership caps in the banking sector, we plan to take similar steps in the insurance and securities sectors in the next few years and phase in full-license, full-ownership operation in an orderly way,” Li said.

”I hope in three years' time, there will be a number of foreign ventures qualified for full-license, full-ownership operation in the financial sector,” Li added.

Beijing has taken numerous steps to increase overseas participation in domestic markets and financial businesses. The Shanghai composite has dropped into a bear market — more than 20 percent from a recent high. That comes amid concerns about China's economic slowdown and renewed pressure from the trade dispute with the U.S.

"The government is encouraging more foreign investment in light of trade war tensions by making its markets more accessible," Eileen Li, research department manager and senior analyst at Shanghai-based Red Pulse, said in an email.

Beijing is "strengthening cross-border ties, and showing good faith that China is taking initiative in working with other countries, in contrast to the U.S.'s protectionist stance," she continued.

The trade tensions between the two countries escalated Monday as U.S. tariffs of 10 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports took effect. Beijing countered with duties of 5 percent and 10 percent on $60 billion worth of U.S. goods.

The U.S. and China have already imposed tariffs on $50 billion worth of each other's goods so far this year. It's unclear when the two sides will meet again to restart negotiations.

Trade frictions aren't having a major impact right now, Liu Shijin, vice chairman of the state-directed China Development Research Foundation, said in Mandarin during a panel on Sept. 18 at the World Economic Forum conference last week. Although the tensions may have a greater effect in the future, he said, the pace of opening up and reform should not stop.

Some recent financial reform efforts that Chinese authorities have taken include:

  • Allowing individual foreign investors in the country to buy mainland-traded stocks, known as A shares.
  • Removing limits of foreign holdings in banks. Previously, individual foreign institutions were limited to a 20 percent stake, and groups to 25 percent.
  • Announcing the removal of limits to majority foreign ownership of life insurers by 2021.

"The opening of the Chinese financial markets in the last 18 months is unprecedented," Mark Leung, chief executive of J.P. Morgan Chase's China business, said Sept. 18 at a World Economic Forum panel.

While exports and a population roughly four times the size of the U.S. have helped spur China to become the second largest economy in the world, the local stock and bond markets are relatively underdeveloped and isolated from global capital.

Beijing would like to boost the prominence of the yuan internationally, attract more foreign capital and manage the hot money flows of its increasingly wealthy population who have limited investment options.

In a key speech at the Boao Forum in April, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized his commitment to financial market reform. Yi Gang, in his first speech this year as head of the People's Bank of China, also pledged to open up the financial industry and develop regulation.

However, it's not always clear when announced changes will take effect. In practice, the process could still take longer than stated.

"The implementation timeline remains negotiable," said Chantal Grinderslev, senior advisor and director of operations at Z-Ben Advisors.

— Reuters contributed to this report.

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