Financial technologies, or fintech, are critical for Chinese financial institutions and small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) in the post-pandemic period as the country pushes forward digital transformation of various industries for high-quality economic development, industry insiders said.

“Demand for digital and online transformation from traditional banks surged during the Covid-19 outbreak as the traditional operation model and offline human-based services mode became unsustainable,” said Zhang Shaofeng, chairman and CEO of Bairong Inc, a Chinese provider of financial big data analytics and other services.

The country’s financial sector is transforming to serve more SMEs in the coming 10 years. This trend will inject new vitality into the country’s real economy through fintech innovations, Zhang said.

“Technology is a must to empower these financial institutions to transform to data and algorithm-driven automated learning. Traditional banks are expected to enhance their competitiveness as fast as possible and achieve better growth through fintech technologies,” he said.

Zhang made the remarks after Bairong Inc made its debut on the Hong Kong stock exchange on March 31. Trading under the stock code 06608.HK, the company priced its initial public offering (IPO) at HK$31.80 (US$4.09) per share, the upper end of its indicated range.

Founded in 2014, Bairong leverages advanced technologies including artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing to enable financial institutions to thrive through digital innovations and transformations.

A wide variety of state-owned funds and leading investment firms have invested in the AI fintech firm. According to its prospectus, Hillhouse Capital holds 12.39 per cent while state-owned China Reform Holdings Corp holds 12 per cent. Sequoia Capital China, China International Capital Corp, China Renaissance and IDG Capital are also among the investors.

Its cornerstone investors for the IPO include Cederberg Capital Ltd, Franchise Fund LP, and China Structural Reform Fund Corp, a state-owned private equity fund that offers state-owned enterprises with support in development and industrial consolidation.

Industry insiders said the investment from leading state-owned funds in the company demonstrated investors’ outlook on the long-term value of the company as well as future prospects for financial digitalisation.

“Chinese fintech companies have improved financial inclusivity by reaching out to consumers and investors in offering new and more convenient services while mainstream banks, insurance companies, securities firms and asset managers have adopted financial technology and transformed the range, speed and costs of financial services,” said Zhang Wei, a research fellow at the Center for China & Globalization.

Zhang said that in this way China can contribute its wisdom to the sound and sustainable development of the digital economy.

The digital economy is a key focus in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), during which China aims to push forward the digitalisation of a raft of industries. The plan also highlighted the necessity to promote financial digitalisation to be safe and controllable.

Bairong chief financial officer Zhao Hongqiang said: “As China has committed to accelerated efforts in digitalisation, including safe financial digitalisation, Bairong has been actively embracing supervision and striving to empower traditional banks and SMEs for digital transformation.”

As of September, Bairong has offered its services and products to 4,200 financial institutions including Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Bank of China. Its core customer retention rate has been further increased from 89 per cent in 2019 to 96 per cent last year, the company said.

Though faced with a pandemic-struck financial industry, Bairong saw a rebound in the fourth quarter, reporting annual revenue of 1.136 billion yuan ($170 million) and narrowing the year-on-year decline to 9.9 per cent.