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China is still reportedly dragging its feet in opening its market to Visa, Mastercard

Key Points
  • The People's Bank of China has not yet formally acknowledged applications from Visa and Mastercard to process yuan payments, the Financial Times reports, citing sources.
  • Acknowledging the applications, made more than a year ago, would kick off a 90-day window in which the central bank must make a decision, the report says.
  • The inaction comes as the U.S. and China are engaged in negotiations on how to resolve trade issues, including that of foreign access to the Chinese market.
  • In response, the People’s Bank of China said Mastercard withdrew its application last year, while Visa’s application lacks supplemental materials.
Jonathan Bainbridge | Reuters

One of the most-touted areas of the so-called opening up of China's economy remains a challenging market for some foreign giants.

With a flurry of announcements in 2018, Beijing loosened its control on the finance industry in what some called an "unprecedented" way. The moves came as complaints about unequal access for foreign players in the country escalated trade tensions between the U.S. and China. But amid ongoing negotiations, not many foreign companies have gotten full access to the massive Asian market yet.

On Monday, the Financial Times reported, citing two sources, that the People's Bank of China has not yet formally acknowledged applications from Visa and Mastercard to process yuan payments. The two companies filed the applications more than a year ago, and regulation says once the central bank acknowledges receipt, it must make a decision within 90 days, the FT report said.

"Mastercard's participation in China will benefit the country, its consumers and its digital payments development," the company said in a statement to CNBC. "We are engaging proactively and working closely with the PBOC to advance our application, and we remain committed to working with the Chinese government and businesses on growing the overall payments ecosystem over the long-term."

Visa did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

The People's Bank of China referred CNBC to a statement shared with privately-run Chinese financial media site Wall Street CN. The comments from the central bank's head of payments said that Mastercard withdrew its application in June 2018 and that Visa's application from April 2018 still lacked some supplemental materials.

"Throughout the entire process, the People's Bank of China never raised the issue or requirement of a joint venture to operate in China," the central bank representative said, according to a CNBC translation of the Chinese-language report.

Approval would let the two U.S.-based companies compete in the local market with China's Unionpay. The company, which the FT report says counts the central bank as its largest shareholder, dominates the local market and has expanded overseas, giving it 36 percent of global market share in bank card payments, according to RBR research cited in the FT report. The article noted Visa and Mastercard have 32 percent and 20 percent of the global market, respectively.

China's slow moves to expand foreign access in finance

Beijing has made some strides in letting foreigners have greater access to the local financial industry, after years of waiting.

In November, the People's Bank of China announced it was granting American Express preliminary approval to process and settle domestic yuan payments through the company's local joint venture partner LianLian.

A few weeks later, UBS announced the China Securities Regulatory Commission gave the company approval to increase its stake in its local joint venture to a majority 51 percent, the first foreign bank to do so.

Earlier in 2018, Beijing removed limits on foreign holdings in banks, announced plans to do the same in the insurance and securities sectors, and allowed foreign investors in the country to buy mainland-traded stocks. President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have both publicly stated their commitment to increasing foreign access to the finance industry.

On Friday, Xiao Yuanqi, spokesperson for the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission said China will consider further opening up of its financial markets and would like foreign firms to set up branches, invest in China and bring in professionals and technologies, according to a report from state news agency Xinhua.

However, critics would note lack of foreign access in the bank card industry is just one of many promises China has yet to live up to since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. More than six years ago, the World Trade Organization said Beijing was breaking the organization's rules by requiring all yuan-denominated payment cards to work with China's Unionpay.

Read the full Financial Times story here.

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