The Mysterious Partnership behind ZhongAn Insurance

By January 21, 2014

Last week, I gave a presentation about the online insurance market in China. One of the cases which drew the most attention from the audience is ZhongAn Insurance. Launched last November, it is the first pure online insurance company established by well-known domestic enterprises. ZhongAn now just has one product which focuses on the e-commerce vendors on Taobao. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon but two questions came to me during the presentation – first, why would archrivals Alibaba and Tencent cooperate and second, why does it seem like ZhongAn only benefits Alibaba?

ZhongAn is famous for its 3 biggest shareholders – Alibaba, Tencent and China PingAn – who own 19.9%, 15% and 15% of the company respectively. The three Ma's (Jack Ma of Alibaba, Pony Ma of Tencent and Peter Ma of PingAn) are all outstanding leaders in their own fields, but they all seem to see or want different things from this cooperation.

Alibaba is the undisputed No.1 in China e-commerce market. It is also the first one that built a 3rd party insurance online sales platform. From Taobao insurance to Leyebao (an online insurance platform established with Taikang Life ), Alibaba has always acted as a creator who pushes the industry into the realm of e-commerce. ZhongAn is not an exception but rather an attempt to do more.

Standing on the other side, Tencent is a tech company more known for instant messaging and online games development. What's less known about Tencent are its e-commerce sites. It already has QQ Mall and, as well as its own 3rd party payment system Tenpay. Needless to say, it’s still far behind Alibaba. As one of my colleagues said, it seems like Tencent doesn’t really have an e-commerce DNA, yet all the recent news point to Tencent’s growing ambitions. It already linked Wechat with bank cards and released Licaibao, a me-too Yuebao. Cooperating with Alibaba is more like an opportunity for Tencent to have a closer study of Alibaba's business.

Until now, the answers for these two questions are almost clear, but the third player, PingAn, cannot be ignored. Ranking top 3 in 2013 for insurance premium income, this insurance giant also has a strong presence in other financial services including banks and investments. Compared to the other financial institutions, they are going ahead on the digital aspect. What do they want next? Cloud computing? Big data? Mobile?

Now that the mysterious partnership has more or less been answered, there are still some surprises left. When I checked ZhongAn's public information, I discovered that Ctrip, an online hotel booking & tickets buying platform, also has 5% share in this company. It’s becoming more interesting and it makes me wonder what will happen this year. Stay tuned.

- Hanna Chen

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