What China’s fintech market can teach the world

Finance researcher Martin Chorzempa discusses Ant Group, payments networks and more

If you want to know what the future of finance looks like, head east, where it’s already been laid down in China. Digital payments through mobile phones are ubiquitous, and there is incredible innovation around lending, investments and digital currencies that are at the vanguard of global financial innovation.

Take the cover photo of this article: At Alibaba, facial recognition software identifies customers at the employee cafeteria, while visual AI identifies foods on their tray and calculates a total bill — all pretty much instantly.

Given some of the big news stories emanating out of the sector the past two weeks, I wanted to get a deeper view on what’s happening in China’s fintech market and what that portends for the rest of the world moving forward. So I called up Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who is writing a book on the development of China’s fintech sector to get his take on what’s happening and what it all means.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

TechCrunch: Why don’t we start with the big news from earlier this month about Ant Group and how its world-record shattering IPO was pulled at the last minute by Chinese financial regulators. What was your take and why were so many people trying to pile into the IPO?

Martin Chorzempa: I think there’s been surprise at how much interest there is in the company, and I think that’s just really an indication of the market for fintech in China. It’s certainly the world’s largest market for financial technology, and even though in the payments space things look pretty saturated between Ant and Tencent’s WeChat, there are so many areas that they’re expanding into, like credit and insurance, where there’s still a lot of room to run for these kinds of financial technologies to take over a much larger share of the financial system than they do now.

So even just considering the domestic market, it’s huge and it’s just going to get larger. Then, the big question mark is expanding abroad and whether these companies can become truly global financial technology giants. Today, nobody except Chinese people outside of China uses Alipay or WeChat Pay to pay for anything. So that’s a big unexplored side that I think is going to come into a lot of geopolitical risks.

So on globalization, who do these companies need to globalize? China has 1.3 billion people — isn’t that enough of a market to stay focused on?

Well, I don’t think anything’s ever enough for firms this ambitious. And if you think about it, if you have this really unique experience and data, that has a lot of applicability to other countries. So at the very least, it would be kind of a deadweight loss not to have that technology and experience applied to building out digital financial solutions in other countries.

Prior to the pandemic, Chinese people were going abroad in large numbers. So if you want to keep serving even the domestic market you have to have your payment methods accepted abroad.

Plus, if you want to facilitate and grow with China’s e-commerce businesses and other kinds of international trade, then having networks of merchants abroad and being able to use Alipay, for example, is something that could be really important to future growth. The domestic market is huge, but eventually you do run into diminishing returns if everybody already has your app and they’re already borrowing and investing.