TikTok parent Bytedance launches its own mobile payment service in China

January 20, 2021, 7:33 AM UTC

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Douyin, the China-only sister company of TikTok, has quietly launched a new in-app payment feature called Douyin Pay, nestling the option alongside services offered by rivals Alibaba and Tencent as Douyin’s parent company, Bytedance, pushes further into e-commerce.

“The set-up of Douyin Pay is to supplement the existing major payment options, and to ultimately enhance user experience on Douyin,” Douyin said in a statement. The video-sharing app expanded into e-commerce in 2017 and, last year, acquired a small payments technology company called Wuhan Hezhong Yibao Technology in order to expand into mobile payments.

Companies in China need a license to run mobile payments services and Beijing, wary of risk in a new fast growing financial segment, stopped issuing them in 2016, after it had already granted one to Wuhan Yibao. When Bytedance bought Wuhan Yibao last September, it acquired the license too.

Unlike on TikTok—the Douyin clone Bytedance built for the U.S. and other international markets—Douyin users are able to shop for products through the app by clicking on the short-video clips, which directs them to an online marketplace.

The technology has opened up new tools for advertisers. If an influencer is wearing a particular shirt, for example, the brand can pay Bytedance to link the video to the sales page for that item.

Adding an in-house payments system seems like a logical step, as it encourages users to keep cash within the Bytedance ecosystem and reduces Douyin’s reliance on its rivals, Alibaba and Tencent.

Currently, Douyin’s users mostly make payments on the app through Tencent’s WeChat Pay and Alibaba-affiliate Ant’s Alipay. Combined, WeChat Pay and Alipay handle roughly 90% of all mobile payments in China, a market that process roughly $70 trillion in mobile payments a year.

Bytedance, which was founded in 2012, has been at odds with the tech titans before. In 2018, Bytedance traded anti-defamation lawsuits with Tencent as the companies accused one another of trying to undermine their reputation. Bytedance had claimed links to its services were blocked by Tencent on the latter’s messaging apps. Tencent is also invested in Douyin rival Kuaishou, which is gearing up for a $5 billion IPO in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Douyin’s investment in e-commerce is a direct challenge to Alibaba. Last year, Alibaba put livestreaming front and center for its Singles’ Day sales event—China’s largest shopping festival—with 300 celebrities hosting livestream sales promotions. Within the first half hour of the event, livestreamers shipped some $7.5 billion worth of goods.

At the moment, Douyin Pay lacks some of the features that users can get through Alipay, such as credit extension and access to Yue’bao, a money market where Alipay customers can invest their digital loose change. Douyin Pay is only offering debit payments, but its launch comes at a opportune moment.

Last year, China’s central government roadblocked Ant’s $35 billion IPO after Alibaba founder Jack Ma openly criticized Beijing’s financial regulators. Now Ant is facing even greater scrutiny, with regulators reportedly pressuring the company to scrap services that are more complicated than basic payments processing.

The crackdown on Ant could level the playing field for an upstart like Douyin, which has also fallen foul of regulators for allowing “obscene” content on its app. But, in a turn of luck, Douyin just scored a deal with China’s central broadcaster CCTV to be the exclusive “red packet” partner for the network’s upcoming New Year Gala—a multi-hour long variety show that airs on Chinese New Year eve.

During the gala, viewers have the chance to win digital “red packets”—envelopes stuffed with cash, traditionally exchanged during Chinese New Year—distributed by the media partner. Both WeChat and Alipay have used the gala partnership to drive downloads of their payment apps before, as viewers sign up for the chance of a free handout.

This year’s gala had originally tapped e-commerce firm Pinduoduo as its red packet partner, but it cancelled the agreement as a scandal involving the deaths of two Pinduoduo employees erupted earlier this month.