China Approves First Foreign Online Brokerage
By Matt Pottinger
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - In a surprising exception to its ban on foreign participation in
telecommunications, Beijing has approved a U.S.-funded joint venture which seeks to launch
an on-line stock trading service in China, a company executive said Wednesday.
The powerful Ministry of Information Industry last month handed the license to a joint venture
between Los Angeles-based Hartcourt Companies Inc (OTC BB:HRCT.OB - news). and
UAC Online Stock Trading Inc., a Beijing-based company half-owned by Hartcourt, said Jack
Westfield, corporate finance vice president for Hartcourt.
The license gives a green light to the venture, also called UAC, to link customers with stock
brokers over a private network leased by state giant China Telecom, Westfield told Reuters on
the sidelines of a U.S.-China telecommunications conference in San Francisco.
UAC's case, which plays to China's hunger for new value-added telecom services, points to
opportunities for foreign investors in spite of official regulations prohibiting their involvement in
the telecom sector.
Tuesday, a Chinese official attending the conference warned foreigners against telecoms
investments, including value-added services such as the Internet.
``Our existing policy hasn't opened our telecommunications (market) for (any) kind of
telecommunications service,'' said Chang Xiaobing, deputy director general at the Ministry of
Information Industries. ``If you do that, you must be responsible for that.''
The UAC stock trading network, while technically an intranet rather than Internet service,
falls squarely into the category of value-added telecommunications services. It also plans to
launch a Chinese Web site providing information on companies and stocks.
Westfield said he wasn't worried about China's sometimes vague policies on overseas
investment. Chinese officials were not available to confirm or comment on the deal.
``We don't have to hide the fact that money and technology is being imported into China for
the development of this on-line trading network,'' he said. ``This dovetails into the value-added
services they're looking for.''
He said Beijing is willing to make exceptions for foreign telecoms investment in a handful of
categories where it is seeking technology and expertise, such as long-distance medical and
educational services -- and stock trading.
UAC is the first company to be win approval for the service, he said. China still prohibits
trading over the Internet for fear of attacks by hackers. But the intranet private network ''is
something they feel very comfortable with,'' he said.
The company has already begun trials at four branches of Hua Xia Securities, the country's
second largest brokerage firm with 98 offices. About 1,500 customers are trading over the
system, which covers the Shanghai and Shenzhen markets, and will be extended to cover
Hong Kong bourses as well, he said.
UAC would collect a $10,000 fee from each branch that signs onto the network, plus a $1 fee
from each stock trade.
``We have a contract to wire all their offices'' and the right to solicit other brokerages,
``China has 42 million private brokerage accounts. Even if we only had 10 percent of the
business, it could just be monumental,'' he said.
Hartcourt plans to fold its Hong Kong-based subsidiary Financial Telecoms into UAC and list
the company overseas in the third quarter of next year he said.
(San Francisco bureau 415-677-2541)