Bank of China

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Bank of China

1 Fuxingmen Nei Dajie, Xicheng D

Telephone: 86 10 6659 6688
Fax: 86 10 6601 4024
Web site:

Government-Owned Company
Incorporated: 1912
Employees: 192,000
Total Assets: $433.78 billion (2003)
NAIC: 522110 Commercial Banking

Bank of China (BOC) is that country's oldest bank, and also one of its four largest banks, with assets of more than $433 billionwhich also places it in the top 20 banks worldwide. BOC's function as the country's foreign exchange specialist for more than 40 years has made it the country's most international bank, with 580 branches and subsidiaries in 26 countries. At home, Bank of China is backed up by a network of more than 12,000 branch offices. Altogether, the bank employs nearly 193,000 people. Although BOC remains under Chinese government control, its subsidiary Bank of China (Hong Kong) Limited is the first Chinese-held bank to list on a foreign stock exchange. BOC offers a full range of traditional banking services, including commercial, private, and investment banking, foreign currency deposit and exchange services, as well as assets management and insurance services. BOC also holds note-issuing privileges in Hong Kong and Macau. Since the start of the 2000s, BOC has been undergoing a steady restructuring of its operations in order to shrug off the poor reputation of the Chinese banking industry in general as it prepares its own initial public offering (IPO). The bank's listing is slated for 2005 if it meets its restructuring targetsand the arrival of foreign banking competition after China's entry into the World Trade Organization.

Domestic Bank in the 1910s

Although China was the first civilization to introduce paper currencyin the 12th centurythe country remained without a modern banking system until after the First Opium War in 1842. With China brought under colonial influence, the country opened up to foreign banks. In part by providing loans to the ruling Qing dynasty, the foreign banks quickly dominated China's economy.

Growing nationalist sentiment against the Qing government at the end of the century led to the first attempts to establish Chinese banks, beginning with the formation of the Imperial Bank of China in Shanghai in 1897. The Qing government responded by authorizing the creation of a new Chinese-owned bank in Beijing. The Bank of the Board of Revenue, as it was called, was created in 1905 and was jointly held by private citizens and the government. In 1908, the bank changed its name, to Da Qing Bank. At that time, the Qing government authorized the bank to issue money and oversee the treasury. Da Qing also coordinated the government's debts.

The Qing dynasty was overthrown during the republican revolution of 1911. The new provisional government, led by Sun Yatsen, authorized Da Qing Bank to change its name, to Bank of China. Now the Sun government's central bank, BOC became headquartered in Shanghai. In the meantime, the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese monarchy led to the emergence of a large number of new domestic banks. These remained rather small, dwarfed by the more established foreign competitors.

BOC remained a central component of the Sun government through the troubled decades ahead. In 1928, BOC took on a new facet as the government's international exchange bank. This position was solidified with the opening of a branch office in London in 1929, marking the first time a Chinese bank had opened an office outside of China. BOC quickly extended its foreign network, and by the end of the 1940s had opened 34 branches outside of China, including a number of branches in Britain-dominated Hong Kong.

The arrival to power of the Communist government under Mao marked a new era for BOC as well. Foreign banks were forced to exit the country. At the same time, the domestic banking sector was brought entirely under government control and reformed into four primary bodies. BOC, which remained one of the country's four prominent banking operations, was then specialized as the government's foreign exchange bank, responsible for foreign trade and international banking operations.

BOC remained China's most public banking face as the country plunged into some three decades of political and economic isolation from the rest of the world. At the end of the 1970s, however, the Chinese government became determined to end its attempt at self-sufficiency, and instead initiated a thaw in its international relationsand a gradual relaxation of its economic policies.

Full-Service Banker in the 1990s

BOC played a primary role in reintroducing China to the global market. As such, BOC acted as an intermediary in negotiating a number of important trade agreements, such as the country's first energy loan agreement with the Export and Import Bank of Japan in 1979. The following year, BOC itself entered Japan, opening its first branch office in Tokyo. That year, too, BOC acted as the first Chinese bank to offer export sales credits. In 1984, BOC achieved another first, becoming the first Chinese bank to issue bonds on the foreign market. These came in the form of "Samurai" bonds worth ¥20 billion.

The thawing of relationships with China and the West enabled BOC to entered the U.S. market in the early 1980s as well, starting with the opening of its first branch office in New York in 1982. Meanwhile, the decentralization of China's banking system enabled BOC to come home, as it were. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s BOC established a powerful domestic banking network. At the same time, BOC developed a full range of both consumer and corporate banking services. Among these was the issuing of China's first credit card, the Great Wall Credit Card, in 1986.

Into the 1990s, BOC played a prominent role in adding new technologies, as the Chinese banking system rushed to catch up to its foreign counterparts. In 1991, BOC became the first Chinese bank to offer telephone-based banking services. In 1994, the bank also became the first to install an automated teller network and to begin issuing debit cards to its customers.

By then, BOC had become one of the pillars of China's foreign exchange reform, an important component to China's emergence as one of the world's most powerful economies at the beginning of the 21st century. BOC itself had begun to gain increasing stature on the world market. In 1994, the bank became the first in China to issue bonds to the U.S. market. In that year, also, BOC's Hong Kong subsidiary was granted the authority to issue notes in colony, a privilege extended the following year to Macau as well.

In 1998, BOC extended its range of services again, founding BOC International Holdings Ltd. in Hong Kong as an investment banking specialist. That operation, backed by BOC's fast-growing international network of more than 500 foreign branch offices by the end of the decade, established itself as China's leading investment banker. By the end of the decade, BOC had entered the insurance market as well, founding Bank of China Group Insurance Co., which, together with BOC International, began building its own retail network on the Chinese mainland. This development enabled BOC to reposition itself along a three-pronged strategy of commercial banking, insurance, and investment banking.

Reforming for Competition in the 2000s

China's decision to join the World Trade Organization by 2006 promised to open the country's banking market to a new era of competition. The deregulation of the industry offered the prospect of free market-based growth within the sector, both the country's domestic banks and for their foreign competitors, eager to share in what promised to become the world's most vigorous economy. As part of the run-up to deregulation, BOC, like its state-controlled counterparts, was forced to institute a massive restructuring.

Indeed, decades of serving as the government's bank had led to years of corruption, bad loans, and spending to prop up the many inefficiently run government-owned companies in China. Particularly troubling for BOC, as for the other three main state-controlled banks, was its extremely high level of nonperforming loans. In some sectors, such as the entertainment sector, nonperforming loans ran as high as 60 percent of the bank's portfolio. Working with outside consultants, BOC began developing new loan criteria designed to push its nonperforming loan portfolio down to acceptable international standards. At the same time, BOC was able to look to the Chinese government for help in writing off parts of its nonperforming loan portfolio.

Into the 2000s, BOC had operated in Hong Kong through some 12 different banks and a credit card operation, with little to no coordination among them. In 2001, however, BOC merged these companies together to form a single, unified entity, Bank of China (Hong Kong) Ltd. The new bank now became Hong Kong's second largest bank, behind only HSBC. After more than a year spent integrating its operations, BOC Hong Kong was ready for the next stage in BOC's development: its public offering. Worth more than $2.8 billion, and oversubscribed by some 7.5 times, BOC Hong Kong's IPO marked a new milestone for the Chinese banking system, becoming the first Chinese-owned bank to go public.

Company Perspectives:

Our Mission: To build Bank of China into a market-driven, client-oriented, world-class financial services institution, with a robust corporate governance structure capable of delivering outstanding performance over the long term.

The listing of BOC Hong Kong was widely recognized as the precursor for the public listing of parent BOC in the near future. By 2004, BOC had acknowledged its plans to go public, suggesting that its IPO might take place as early as 2005 if it met its own restructuring schedule. As part of the move toward listing publicly, BOC continued to push down its nonperforming loan levelsselling an additional 10 percent stake in BOC Hong Kong in December 2003 in a cash-raising effort. That sale reduced BOC's stake in its Hong Kong subsidiary to just 66 percent.

BOC appeared to be coming closer to its IPO in 2004, especially after receiving a massive cash injectiontaken from the country's huge foreign exchange reservesin order to reduce still further its nonperforming loan levels. The bank also announced that it was actively seeking strategic investors as part of the process of going public. As it braced itself for the coming international competition, BOC also continued to expand its own foreign banking network. In April 2004, for example, BOC announced its intention to open a branch office in Bahrain, marking its entry into the Middle East market. With assets approaching $500 billion, BOC promised to remain a major player on the international banking stage.

Principal Subsidiaries

Bank of China (Hong Kong) Limited; Nanyang Commercial Bank, Ltd.; Chiyu Banking Corporation Ltd.; BOC Credit Card (International) Ltd.; BOC International Holdings Ltd.; BOCI Asia Ltd.; BOCI Asset Management Ltd.; BOCI Capital Ltd.; BOC Group Trustee Co., Ltd.; BOCI-Prudential Asset Management Ltd.; BOCI-Prudential Trustee Ltd.; Bank of China Group Insurance Company Ltd.; BOC Group Life Assurance Company Ltd.; Bank of China Group Investment Ltd.

Key Dates:

The Qing government gives authorization for the founding of Chinese-owned Bank of the Board of Revenue in Beijing.
The bank changes its name to Da Qing Bank and begins issuing notes.
After the overthrow of the Qing government, the bank changes its name to Bank of China (BOC), and becomes the central bank.
BOC becomes the government's international exchange bank and opens its first foreign office, in London.
After the Communist revolution, BOC specializes in foreign exchange operations for the government.
BOC signs the first energy loan agreement between China and Japan as China launches its "Open Door Policy"; the bank establishes its first branch office in Japan.
The bank opens its first branch office in the United States, in New York City.
BOC becomes the first Chinese bank to issue bonds to the Japanese market.
BOC introduces the first Chinese credit card.
Telephone-based banking services are launched.
BOC begins issuing notes in Hong Kong; the bank issues the first Chinese bonds in the U.S. market.
BOC begins issuing notes in Macau.
BOC International Holdings, the group's assets management business, is launched.
BOC merges 12 Hong Kong banks and a credit card subsidiary to form Bank of China Hong Kong.
BOC becomes the first Chinese bank to launch a public offering, listing Bank of China Hong Kong on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
BOC begins preparations for its own public offering in 2005; the bank opens its first branch office in the Middle East, in Bahrain.

Principal Competitors

Westpac Banking Corporation; Industrial and Commercial Bank of China; China Construction Bank; Agricultural Bank of China; First Pacific Bank.

Further Reading

"Bank of China Establishes First Middle East Branch," Asia Pulse, April 20, 2004.

"Bank of China Has Yet to Choose Where to List," Asia Pulse, April 15, 2004.

"Bank of China Prepares 2004 IPO by Selling 10% of BOC Hong Kong in Red Hot Markets," Euroweek, December 19, 2003, p. 14.

"Banking in China: The Future Is Clear," Banker Magazine, January 29, 2003.

"BOC Still Looking for Key Investors," Standard, April 9, 2004.

"Botox Shot," Economist, January 10, 2004, p. 65.

"Chinese Bank Breaks the Barriers," Project Finance, July 1999, p. 9.

Clifford, Mark, "The Bank of China's Real Scandal," Business Week Online, June 20, 2003.

, "The Long March Begins," Business Week, August 5, 2002, p. 44.

M.L. Cohen