Digital banking: Electronic shock for China's old guard

Elliot Wilson
Published on:

Tencent and Alibaba are at the vanguard of setting up new online banks. It's a great way to shake up the old state players and, by mining their data, get credit ratings for China's underserved population. But do upstart tech companies really have the political and business resources to challenge the incumbents?

Many commentators in China are extremely excited about the launch of WeBank, and are all-too-ready to discuss how its creation could help transform the country’s banking sector.

Getting anyone at WeBank itself to talk about its potential is a much tougher task. Tencent, the Chinese internet giant that is its most illustrious shareholder, is famously secretive, despite being listed in Hong Kong, and rarely grants interviews to either domestic or international media.

Tencent’s wiry founder-chairman Pony Ma is bespectacled and publicity-shy, expressionless and pale, in many ways the embodiment of that western idea of Chinese inscrutability.

Requests for an interview with WeBank were at first politely rebuffed by Tencent; later entreaties were simply ignored.

"Good luck getting an interview with them," counseled a well-credentialled Hong Kong financial analyst. "If you can get your foot in the door, please let me know how."

Never one to shirk a...