China’s mobile payment market saw a 140% year-over-year growth in transaction volume in the first quarter of 2015, excluding the traditional services of Chinese banks and China UnionPay.

According to a report by market research firm iResearch, the early-year boost was thanks to “lucky money” fever during the 2015 Chinese New Year holidays in February, a feature where real money transfers are gamified, building on the Chinese new year tradition of lucky money.

Under the feature, a user can add a red envelope, or ‘hongbao’ to their chat, contributing an amount of real RMB. Friends can then select the envelope, and a random algorithm determines how big of a share each recipient takes.

The massive success of the gamified lucky money feature by Tencent’s messaging app WeChat helped WeChat Payment sign up an unprecedented numbers of users. They are now seizing on that momentum with an additional wave of targeted payment-related functions and features.

Giving "Lucky Money" to A Group of Friends on WeChat
Giving “Lucky Money” to A Group of Friends on WeChat

WeChat wasn’t the first to enable digital “lucky money” giving. Alipay, the leading online payment service, introduced a similar feature well before. However WeChat added the gamification features, cashing in on the existing popularity of their WeChat platform.

The immediate popularity of the WeChat, which was released in early 2011, made Alipay nervous to the point that the Alibaba affiliate would revamp its own mediocre service and launch a marketing campaign during 2015 Chinese new year holidays.

Alipay and WeChat would later relentlessly copy each other’s payment-related creations. Alipay, which had never been designed as a social service, added a social layer earlier this year to enable money transfers between friends, hoping to tap the success of WeChat.

The two giant’s are now interlocked in the same direction: racing to monetize on the remaining cash-only industries in China, while edging into the territory of traditional banks. They’ve recently been working to sign up public services and other organizations, offering them workflow management software which includes their mobile payment services.

Since May 2014 Alipay has revealed the extent of their push to monetize the public sector, with their Future Hospital plan, Future Public Transportation Plan, Future Retail Plaza and Future Commercial District plans. WeChat unveiled City Services in early 2015, also shifting toward the public sector.

Tencent’s Foray Into Mobile Payments: From Marginal To Monster

Source: iResearch
Source: iResearch

In the first quarter of 2015 Alipay had a 77% market share and Tencent’s Tenpay held 14%, according to the aforementioned iResearch report. Before the WeChat lucky money feature, Tenpay, the online payment solution developed many years ago to support Tencent’s e-commerce business, had a marginal share in the market.

Tencent merged its e-commerce business to online retailer in 2014. At that time Alipay was the primary online payment service Chinese consumers used for shopping on Alibaba’s marketplaces or with other merchants who accepted online payments.

Launched just before 2014 Chinese New Year, WeChat’s lucky money feature effectively brought Tenpay to prominence. Not only was the hongbao used in its traditional sense, by Chinese adults to give lucky money to kids, or bosses to employees, the feature would later be leveraged by businesses to conduct digital marketing campaigns, including giving away cash to gain subscribers on their official WeChat accounts. It’s even been accused of being a channel for bribes.

Honghao accelerated the acceptance of WeChat Payment a a means of payment, which was developed on top of Tenpay and launched in August 2013. As of 2014, more than 100 million user bank accounts had been bundled with WeChat and Mobile QQ (QQ IM is Tencent’s core business), according to Tencent.

Now the lucky money and money transfer features are sitting next to photo and video features on the WeChat’s conversation menu. It only takes a couple of simplified steps to send money to your WeChat contacts through either of the two so long as a bank account has been bundled onto your WeChat account.

WeChat has been adding goods and services for users to purchase within the app that range from Tencent’s own mobile games and virtual items to group-buying, ride hailing and online shopping offered by partners.

WeChat makes it super easy to send friends money or "lucky money".
WeChat makes it super easy to send friends money or “lucky money”.
Users are able to make payments for a variety of services within WeChat.
Users are able to make payments for a variety of services within WeChat.

WeChat launched a mobile shop system and self-service advertising system in 2014. WeChat Public Accounts can also receive payments by adding a tipping feature.

Alipay Still Leads The Way.

For Alipay, mobile expansion was a natural step. Its first mobile version was released in 2008. In 2013 Alipay initiated an offline expansion. Now their mobile payment is widely available at supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants, taxies, vending machines and – more recently – hospitals.

Though WeChat Payment is growing surprisingly fast, it is unlikely to surpass the Alipay giant in the near future, especially considering the latter has become it’s own entity among the Alibaba family; Ant Financial Services Group (Ant Financial), a very successful internet-based financial product and service developer.

Yu’e bao is another very successful element within Alibaba’s family, consolidating it’s top spot in the Chinese payments ecosystem. It’s a monetary market fund operated by a mutual fund company in which Alibaba has acquired a controlling stake. It makes buying a fund much easier than with traditional financial institutions and users can withdraw money any time to make purchases from Alibaba’s inter-connected e-commerce platforms.

At the end of 2014 Alipay added Huabei, a credit service that makes month-to-month loans. Alipay uses its own user data-based credit rating system to evaluate requests.

Though Tencent has been developing similar products and services, what we see so far is Ant Financial moves at a speed that could snuff out Tencent’s potential in the market. At the same time, the incredibly fast success of Tencent’s Lucky money initiative shows that the days of rapid-fire growth aren’t entirely over in China’s saturated payments industry.

Image Credit:WeChat, Shutterstock

Tracey Xiang is Beijing, China-based tech writer. Reach her at

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