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UnionPay: Visa and MasterCard's Tough Chinese Rival

Dominant at home, UnionPay is expanding overseas
Harrod’s has accepted UnionPay cards since 2011
Harrod’s has accepted UnionPay cards since 2011Photograph by James McCauley/Getty Images

Among the myriad designer brands at the Harrods flagship store in London, Chinese housewife Li Yafang spotted a corporate logo she knows from back home: the red, blue, and green of UnionPay cards. “It’s very convenient,” said Li, 39, as a salesperson rang up a £1,190 ($1,920) Prada Saffiano Lux handbag.

With 2.9 billion cards in circulation—equal to 45 percent of the world’s total last year—UnionPay has grown into a payments processing colossus just 10 years after the company was founded. Now accepted in 135 countries, its share of global credit- and debit-card transaction volume for the first half of 2012 rose to 23.8 percent, propelling it to No. 2 behind Visa International, according to the Nilson Report, an industry newsletter. “UnionPay has absolute dominance in China, and it’s now expanding beyond that to become a top global player,” says James Friedman, an analyst at Susquehanna International Group. “Their numbers show they are already in the league of Visa and MasterCard.”