Will China’s government-controlled cloud rain on fintech innovation?

Business & Technology

The Chinese government has demonstrated a willingness to innovate in the financial services technology sector. For example, the People's Bank of China (PBOC) has announced accelerated plans for a central bank digital currency (CBDC), and filed scores of CBDC patents (paywall), while private sector fintech initiatives like Baidu’s Xuperchain network have been introduced to great fanfare. What's more, the PBOC's Fintech Development Plan 2019–2021 (in Chinese) expresses support for technological innovation, including the use of cloud storage for financial data such as payments.

A version of this article was originally published by Kapronasia, a Shanghai- and Singapore-based fintech consultancy.

The Chinese government has demonstrated a willingness to innovate in the financial services technology sector. For example, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has announced accelerated plans for a central bank digital currency (CBDC), and filed scores of CBDC patents (paywall), while private sector fintech initiatives like Baidu’s Xuperchain network have been introduced to great fanfare. What’s more, the PBOC’s Fintech Development Plan 2019–2021 (in Chinese) expresses support for technological innovation, including the use of cloud storage for financial data such as payments.

However, the Chinese government is also traditionally cautious in regard to security and control. Thus, financial services companies in China that are contemplating the migration of critical business applications to the cloud would be well advised to plan carefully. To that end, Chinese regulators have reportedly engaged in private conversations with information security representatives from several foreign banks, advising them that critical hosting engagements in the cloud will need to be handled exclusively by specialized “financial community cloud” providers who have been certified by the government.

What is a financial community cloud?

A financial community cloud (金融社区云 jīnróng shèqū yún) is a walled-off, highly secure hosting service, specifically designed to meet regulators’ needs for monitoring, investigating, and auditing the activities of financial services companies. Back in 2016, the 13th Five-Year Plan of the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) alluded to the requirement for such specialized cloud services, and China’s cloud-hosting market has subsequently been moving to meet anticipated demand. Several established cloud providers are introducing financial community cloud offerings, including Alibaba Cloud, Tencent Cloud, Baidu Cloud, Huawei Cloud, and 21Vianet (partner to Western cloud service providers such as Microsoft). Traditional IT hardware and services vendors, such as IBM, HP, and Sinosoft, also appear to be dipping their toes into the specialized hosting waters.

The CBRC mandate for centralized hosting appears to have also struck financial services companies as representing a potentially lucrative business opportunity, and they are joining the already crowded field. Several financial services companies that have reportedly received recognition from the Chinese government as certified financial community cloud providers include Industrial Bank Co. Ltd. (with its offshoot named Industrial Consumer Finance Co. Ltd.), China Merchants Bank (with its MBCloud offering), and PingAn Insurance (with its OneConnect suite of cloud-native products).

All of this activity might be interpreted as good for innovation. However, it remains to be seen whether financial community cloud hosting services will foment innovation in financial technology or stifle it. At the moment, there is no indication that such specialized services are part of a larger plan to open up China’s financial “technology stack” to permit more experimentation and innovation. Instead, the government’s focus on security and control seems to pose an impediment to the evolution of financial technologies.

The partnerships are emerging to match traditional public cloud providers, which have expertise in technology infrastructure, with traditional financial services companies, which offer specialized knowledge and processes to satisfy the security and audit concerns of Chinese regulators. The focus of these partnerships on traditional security and controls does not bode well for disruptive and innovative change.

Wait and see?

Nevertheless, small steps still count as progress. One example of a partnership is a cooperative effort involving the Bank of Nanjing, Alibaba Cloud, and Ant Financial, which recently launched the Xinyun+ financial cloud platform, intended to help small- and medium-sized banks in China manage their lending businesses. You can find a case study on Xinyun+ in Kapronasia’s latest report, titled “The Future of Fintech Cooperation.”

China’s requirements for a financial community cloud could very well be part of a centralized government plan for establishing a Chinese “technology stack” that encourages fintech innovation. However, the large number of players who are vying for a slice of the specialized hosting pie suggests that a master plan is not lurking just beneath the surface. As 2020 progresses, more details should be provided. In the meantime, China’s financial services community must await clarification before important infrastructure plans can be made accordingly.