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PayPal's ambition and uphill battle in China

Rita Liao
·3-min read

Over the last few months, PayPal has been quietly gearing up for its expansion in China.

At the recent Boao Forum for Asia, China's answer to Davos, the American payments giant said its strategy for China is not to challenge the duopoly of Alipay and WeChat Pay. Instead, it wants to focus on cross-border business and provide gateways both for Chinese merchants to sell overseas and for Chinese consumers to pay for foreign goods.

It's certainly a lucrative area. The market size of cross-border e-commerce in China surged from about 3 trillion yuan ($460 million) to nearly 6 trillion yuan between 2016 and 2021, according to market research firm iResearch.

But this space has also become crowded in recent years, and PayPal may be late to the fray, said a China-based manager for an American tech giant, who asked for anonymity because he's not authorized to speak to the media.

On Amazon, one of the largest marketplaces for Chinese exporters to sell online, there are already established options for merchants to collect funds. Setting up a bank account in a foreign country can be difficult for a small-time Chinese exporter, not to mention the high fees for remittance, so such merchants often seek third-party payments transfer solutions such as U.S.-based Payoneer and Chinese equivalents PingPong and LianLian, which charge a relatively small fee to deposit merchants' sales into their bank accounts at home.

China has stringent policies for foreign exchange and electronic payments, but PayPal has already cleared the regulatory hurdles. In January, the American fintech titan became the first foreign firm to hold a license for online payment processor in China after it bought out shares in a local payments firm.

Obtaining the government greenlight is just the first step. The appeal of PayPal hinges largely on what it can offer to Chinese e-commerce exporters, who are now flooding the likes of Amazon and eBay.

"At the end of the day, customers only care which service is the cheapest and easiest to use," said the China-based manager from the American firm.

"The Chinese cross-border payment solutions have achieved impressive results in terms of products, scale and fees," the person said. "I don't think PayPal stands a chance."

Exporters who build their own online stores instead of selling on mainstream marketplaces may still find PayPal necessary as a tool to accept payments from customers, given the app's wide reach.

As for cross-border payments, PayPal is competing with Tencent's WeChat Pay and Ant Group's Alipay, which have long been ubiquitous in China. Both e-wallets have been aggressively growing their global partnerships to let China's outbound travelers pay at overseas retailers like they would at home. Those shopping for overseas products domestically often use Chinese-owned e-commerce apps, which tend to have Alipay or WeChat Pay as their payment processor. Credit cards never became prevalent in China.

Cross-border payments have also become one of Ant's main growth goals, according to the prospectus of its now-halted initial public offering. While overseas businesses accounted for just about 5% of the firm's revenue in the second half of 2020, most of that segment came from cross-border payments. At the time, Ant also had plans to spend HK$52.8 billion, or 40%, of the net proceeds from its IPO on expanding its cross-border payment and merchant services as well as other overseas functionalities.

"It depends on whether PayPal is able to offer even lower fees than Ant," said a person who previously worked on cross-border wallets for a Chinese company. "But PayPal itself is not famous for low fees."