China: State-Run Banks to Offer U.S. Credit Cards

China: State-Run Banks to Offer U.S. Credit Cards

Two Chinese banks plan to roll out American credit cards, including the country’s first dual-currency American Express Card, according to American Express and Industrial & Commercial Bank of China have launched both standard and gold versions of the American Express card aimed at a growing market of affluent Chinese consumers.

In addition, the Bank of China, the oldest indigenous Chinese bank, will be releasing a co-branded Visa card to mark Beijing’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008. Australia’s The Age reports that the card will come with a frequent flyer rewards program.

Between 1 and 3 percent of Chinese citizens hold Western-style credit cards — usually the wealthiest of urban sophisticates, according to The Age. Most people use cash for everything; they have no bank accounts or have never been offered credit by a bank. What little personal lending occurs is usually informally arranged among friends, family or business associates.

American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault told Forbes that the co-branded ICBC-American Express card would seek to extend the 3 percent penetration of credit cards into the China market. American Express expects China will eventually have a penetration rate similar to Hong Kong’s 20 percent of consumer transactions as the country continues to develop its economy.

“Clearly, I think there is strong potential over the next several years for a dramatic expansion,” Chenault said. He said the new cards would initially target the affluent and the aspiring-to-be-affluent consumers in China. The dual foreign currency and yuan credit cards to be marketed by ICBC allow users to tap the American Express travel services and rewards programs, he told reporters.

Initially, the American Express cards will only be available to residents of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Even then, applicants will have to have a minimum income of 20,000 yuan a year ($2,400USD), about 2.5 times the average annual wage in China.

“This is a market that is in its infancy,” Chenault said. “But we think there are tremendous opportunities for growth going forward.”

Bank of China is also making inroads into the China market for credit cards through its partnership with Visa International. Bank of China Managing Director Hua Qingshan said China’s banking regulator has approved its plan to establish a professional bank card branch office.

“Previously, our bank card center focused mainly on supervision while paying less attention to operation,” he said. “The new bank card center will combine the two functions together to manage and operate the full product line of Bank of China’s bank cards, including debit cards and credit cards, both domestically and overseas.”

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