Insurance proliferates in the mainstream

Insurance has evolved from something far from the minds of Chinese people to a part of life in the past four decades and consumers are  benefiting from the explosion of services.

Not all that long ago, insurance was something far from the minds of Chinese people living under a centralized system that took care of every need, from jobs, housing and transport to food supplies and medical care.

But as that system underwent reforms and decentralization, the onus has fallen on people to look after themselves more. It was a golden opportunity for the then fledgling insurance industry.

Many Chinese knew little about insurance and were wary about the need to protect themselves and their families from home damage, illness, road accidents and untimely death.

But now, insurance has become a part of life. China has 228 insurance companies by the end of 2017, including 56 foreign-funded insurers. The market share of foreign players has increased over fivefold in the past 20 years.

Consumers have generally benefited from the explosion of services and become convinced of the need for insurance.

Just ask Liang Jing, 34, who was rear-ended in a traffic accident. With the help of a WeChat public account named “Quick & Easy,” it took him a mere 10 minutes to sort out the ramification online. He reported the case to police, uploaded photos of the car damage along with his driver’s license and filled out an insurance form.

The “Quick & Easy” platform shows just how far the industry has evolved in a short period of time. Launched in June 2016, it was the initiative of the Shanghai Insurance Association and the Shanghai Public Security Bureau to handle vehicle accidents in a heavily trafficked city where collisions are not uncommon.

The first of its kind in China, the platform has since drawn 613,000 followers and handled 236,761 traffic accidents.

Winning trust

Buying insurance can be tricky. There are so many policy plans and so much fine print.

Qian Tong, 48, began to buy life insurance almost 20 years ago, at the instigation of his father-in-law. He purchased policies covering death, disease and accidental injuries. They cost him about 8,000 yuan (US$1,203) a year.

Recently he began surfing online to compare his coverage with what was available. He decided to let his health policy lapse and instead bought a policy on WeSure, an insurance platform run by Internet giant Tencent Holdings on its WeChat application.

The new policy will save him several hundred yuan a year.

 “It’s more convenient and cheaper, and it also provides wider coverage,” he explained.

Qian’s experience underscores the emergence of online sales channels for insurers. Still, China has an estimated 8 million sales agents who help clients choose policies to suit their needs and usually earn commissions from insurance companies.

Gu Yuping, general manager of the marketing and product department at China Life’s Shanghai branch, said insurance agents need to win the trust of people before deals materialize. However, such personal contact is being undermined by online channels.

For Liang, however, nothing beats the personal touch. The father of two boys, he bought two life insurance policies from US insurance giant Metlife in May. The policies will cost him more than 30,000 yuan a year.

“Although buying insurance online is less expensive, I don’t feel it’s as reliable,” Liang said, who added that he is also concerned about the dependability of claims services.

For Yu Qinfeng, insurance has meant marked different stages of her life. Her first contact with risk protection started during her years studying in Europe. After graduation, employers included insurance in their benefit packages. Later, she began buying policies for her family members.

“We should think about how to pass on our wealth to the next generation, in addition to providing protection and savings for them,” said Yu, who now works for a US company which offers independent medical advisory and advocacy services.

Yu buys policies through different channels. For straight-forward products like air-travel accident insurance, she buys online. For more complex, expensive policies, she turns to professional agents, generally preferring foreign insurers because of their high level of expertise.

“For health insurance, what I value most is service,” she said. “If I were to take ill, I would want the best treatment I could get. That is the key.”

China now has nearly universal basic health insurance coverage, but there remain gaps that ordinary people have to pay.

For example, those covered under the national program can see a doctor in the public hospital and buy medicine from designated pharmacies, but if they were to be diagnosed with something serious, like cancer, the national program doesn’t cover all costs.

Insurance companies are trying to fill that gap with supplementary private insurance.

WeCare, a medical policy operated by WeSure and licensed digital insurer Taikang Online, offers coverage of 6 million yuan for a premium costing a few hundred yuan.

The platform uses simple illustrations and clear language to explain provisions of the coverage.

WeSure data show that people born after the 1980s account for 90 percent of its initial customers, a sign that the younger generation has a keener sense of risk protection than older people.

No horizon too far

China has approximately 17 million pregnant women a year, who have an increasing need for more affordable prenatal and neonatal care, said Zhang Haichuan, chief executive officer of Chengdu-based Celula China Med-Technology Co.

Zhang said his company supports insurance companies that seek to sell products that integrate with Celula’s advanced diagnostic technologies, which include gene testing.

 “The correlation between a person’s genes and personal health is clear and clinically proven, and every family wants a healthy child,” said Zhang. “That is why we are focused on developing and providing accurate and cost-effective prenatal and neonatal diagnostic testing products and services.”

The evolution of insurance in China suggests that no horizon is too far to reach.

Back in the 1990s, insurers sold traditional products which offered pure protection to policyholders, said China Life’s Gu. In 2000, her company launched the nation’s first product that transformed life insurance into investment products that allowed policyholders to receive dividends.

Such policies rapidly gained popularity after the 2008 financial crisis, with their market share topping about 70 percent in 2013.

However, some of the high-yield products that appeared to carry risks have been discouraged by China’s insurance regulator.

Insurers are showing remarkable innovation in attracting customers. AIA Group, Asia’s largest life insurer, initiated a health-management mobile application in China last March. The platform can track clients’ daily activities and offers cash bonuses to encourage healthy lifestyles.

More insurance companies are teaming up with third-party service providers to offer clients more value-added services.

Alibaba e-commerce platform Taobao tied up with Huatai Property & Casualty Insurance Co in 2010 to offer China’s first free return shipping insurance product.

It came as great relief to Xing Tianyi, a postgraduate at Fudan University, who was annoyed when she had to pay the cost of returning products she bought online.

“With the insurance, I no longer have qualms about buying things online that may need to be returned,” she said.

Insurance is entering all facets of daily life.

Zhong An Online Property & Casualty Co launched a product targeting the nation’s 380 million stock cellphones in 2016. For a fee of 69 yuan, policyholders can claim compensation up to 2,000 yuan within a one-year period if they accidentally crack their mobile phone screens.

Chen Jin, chief executive officer of Zhong An, said his company is offering insurance products for over 300 partners, spanning e-commerce and health to automobiles and travel.

In 2017, the online insurer served 432 million users and sold more than 5 billion policies.

Winning Health Technology Group Co, a Shanghai-based medical and health care information solutions provider, said it has reduced the payment time for medical claims.

Its services don’t end there. The company said it is working with underwriters to devise customized dining menus for people with diabetes, which will give those people coverage as long as they follow the prescribed diet.

Insurance proliferates in the mainstream

Timeline of insurance development

1979: the People's Insurance Company (Group) of China Ltd(PICC), the country’s first insurer, resumes full operation after 20 years of business suspension.

1988: PingAn Insurance Co, a shareholder-owned company becomes the first competitor to PICC.

1992: The insurance industry door is opened to foreign companies, with Shanghai chosen for the first pilot project of the reforms.

1992: AIA becomes the only wholly foreign-owned insurer to enter the mainland after it was granted a license.

2000: China Life launches the country’s first participating insurance policy.

2017: China has 228 insurance companies, including 56 foreign-funded insurers. The market share of foreign players has increased over fivefold in the past 20 years.

2018: China is expected to surpass US to become the world’s largest market by 2028, according to European insurer Allianz.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announces at the BaoAo forum that the country will further open up of its financial industries, a step that insurer AIA said will benefit the insurance industry.

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