16 Chaowai Avenue
Our Mission: Work for the well-being of the people and revitalize national life insurance industry.
China Life Insurance Company Limited is the largest life insurer in the People's Republic of China. The company offers individual life insurance, group life, accident insurance, and health insurance policies. China Life commands 45 percent of that market, and holds the number one position in 29 of the country's 31 major markets--only Shanghai and Beijing, where the company nonetheless is number two, escape its dominance. Formed from the breakup of former government-owned monopoly People's Insurance Company of China, China Life is the only life insurance company in China with a national operating license, which has permitted it to develop a network of more than 8,000 field offices, 4,800 branch offices, 3,000 customer service offices, and 87,000 sales outlets in such locations as banks, post offices, hotels, airports, travel agents, and the like. The company's nearly 67,000 employees are complemented by a network of 650,000 exclusive independent sales agents. The company also operates a "one-stop" 24-hour telephone sales and service hotline. Together, China Life serves more than 100 million long-term policy holders and more than 150 million short-term policy holders, generating nearly CNY 51 billion ($6.2 billion) in net premiums and policy fees in 2003. The group's total sales topped $9.5 billion that year. China Life listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange at the end of 2003, raising $3.5 billion in that year's largest initial public offering (IPO). China has indicated its intention to expand into other financial areas, such as asset management, brokering, and banking.
Inheriting China's Pre-Revolution Insurance Industry
The opening of China to the West in the early years of the 20th century led to a variety of new business opportunities. By the end of World War I, China, and especially Shanghai, had become a major center for international trade, although dominated by foreign interests. The lively commercial market in that city offered entrepreneurs seemingly unlimited potential; among these was the young C.V. Starr, an American, who founded an insurance agent's office in Shanghai in 1919. At first, Starr's company, American Asiatic Underwriters (AAU), served as a local representative for foreign insurers.
AAU originally dealt in fire and marine insurance policies. In the early 1920s, however, Starr recognized the vast potential for life insurance among the country's Chinese population. Starr set up a new company, Asia Life Insurance Company, which became the first to market life insurance products to the Chinese. The company's head start allowed it to build quickly into a leading insurance provider not only across the Chinese mainland, but throughout much of the Asian region. Starr's company eventually evolved into U.S. leader American Insurance Group.
In the meantime, Asia Life's success inspired a raft of competitors. Most of these were local representatives of large foreign companies. A number of local groups appeared, however, and played an important role in developing the life insurance market among the indigenous population.
One of the earliest and most important of these companies was the Tai Ping Insurance Company, which was incorporated in Shanghai in 1929. Founded by H.C. Tung and H.N. Ting, the new company received start-up investments from a number of Chinese banks and began issuing general insurance policies. The following year, Tai Ping added a life insurance component, Tai Ping Life Insurance Company. Tai Ping developed strongly through the 1930s, adding nearly 20 branches in major cities in China as well as elsewhere in southeast Asia. The company also opened some 400 secondary offices across the Chinese mainland, before adding representative offices in Europe and in the Americas.
By the mid-1930s, Tai Ping had grown sufficiently large to become a member of the Shanghai Insurance Association, the only Chinese-owned company to be included in what had previously been an exclusive club for foreign insurers. Tai Ping's fortunes began to dwindle after the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, and especially with the Mao-led Communist revolution in 1949.
Tai Ping in the meantime had been joined by a growing number of other Chinese-owned insurance companies. Among these were China Insurance Company, founded in 1931 in Shanghai, which opened a life insurance subsidiary, China Life Insurance Company in 1933. Later insurance market entries included Ming An Insurance Company, established in Hong Kong in 1949. By then, China boasted more than 240 insurance companies--some 180 of which were Chinese owned.
Following the revolution, the Mao government set up the People's Insurance Company of China (PICC), which took over all insurance interests on the mainland. Tai Ping's leadership fled to Taiwan in 1950, reestablishing the company's operations there. Other companies, especially those that had set up foreign branches in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and elsewhere, withdrew from the mainland to rebuild their businesses around their foreign holdings. Foreign insurance companies were simply expelled outright, and their holdings regrouped under PICC as well.
At first the PICC monopoly continued to operate its various insurance services, integrating the assets of the former independent insurance sector. By 1952, PICC represented a national network of 1,300 branches and 3,000 agency outlets. Yet the Chinese government, in its effort to develop its regime, determined that insurance was superfluous in a state where the government was meant to provide for all social welfare for its citizens. In 1959, therefore, all domestic insurance business was ended. PICC's role was reduced to providing insurance covering the country's foreign policy needs, such as for the marine and aviation sectors. Following the reform, PICC was converted into a department of the government's central bank.
Reforming in the 1980s
Economic reforms launched under Deng Xiaoping in 1978 paved the way to a rebirth in China's insurance sector. In 1979, the People's Insurance Company of China was separated from the central bank and reestablished as an independently operating, although state-controlled, company. In that year, PICC began offering general (i.e., non-life) insurance policies. In 1980, as the first initiatives to bring foreign investment capital in the country emerged, PICC formed a joint venture with American Insurance Group--allowing the American company to test the waters before making a broader return to the mainland insurance market in the 1990s.
PICC began offering life insurance policies again in 1982, targeting the small but growing numbers of middle-class and wealthy Chinese, as well as government officials. Nonetheless, the Chinese life insurance market remained tiny--as late as 2004, per capita spending on life insurance amounted to the equivalent of just $28, compared with average per capita spending of as much $2,800 or more in Japan, offering tantalizing prospects for future growth.
PICC officially retained its monopoly on the Chinese insurance market into the late 1980s. In 1988, however, the company's monopoly was abolished. Licenses were granted to the company's first competitors, including Ping An, which, established that year, grew into the country's second largest life insurer, with a dominance in the important Beijing market. Other early domestic competitors included China Pacific, based in Shanghai, which also started business in 1988, and American Insurance Group, which, in 1992, became the first foreign company to be granted a license to operate a self-standing business on the mainland (i.e., not as part of a joint venture with a local partner). Nonetheless, PICC remained the clear insurance champion on the mainland, with a strong national presence. The company also began opening offices overseas, adding locations in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and London.
Public Company for the New Century
The Chinese government began a wider opening of the country's insurance market in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade, the government had granted licenses to a total of 16 companies--including such returning groups as Tai Ping Insurance Company and China Insurance Company.
The increasingly competitive environment led to a need to change PICC's structure. In 1996, the company reorganized as a holding company, called PICC Group. Its operations were then broken up into three subsidiaries, PICC Life, PICC Property, and PICC Reinsurance. PICC Group initially operated under the control of the People's Bank of China.
Despite the restructuring, PICC Group was somewhat hampered in its growth. The arrival of AIG had introduced a new tied-agency system into the market, encouraging the development of branch networks. Yet PICC Group, as a state-owned enterprise, was initially barred from developing its own network of branch offices and tied agents. As a result, the company was forced to cede the leadership spot in two of the country's most important markets, Beijing, captured by Ping An, and Shanghai, taken by China Pacific.
In 1998, the Chinese government transferred oversight of the country's growing insurance market to a new body, the China Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC). Under new rules, insurance companies were prohibited from operating in both the non-life and life insurance markets. As a result, PICC Group was broken up into its four primary components: PICC, which took over the company's general insurance business; China Re, for its reinsurance operations; China Insurance, which handled the group's international activities; and China Life. All four companies remained controlled by the Chinese state.
Yet the former members of PICC Group began moving toward an opening of its share capital at the beginning of the 2000s. In 2000, China Life announced its intention to diversify its own shareholding in advance of a future public offering. In the meantime, the company continued to build up its business across China, solidifying its dominant position in 29 of the country's 30 major markets. China Life also was helped by the government's rule for foreign corporations operating in China, which stipulated that all employees in these companies must be covered by unified insurance policies. In response, China Life concentrated its unified insurance operations at its Guangdong Branch, close to the rapidly expanding free-trade zone, in which the majority of foreign enterprises had set up their Chinese operations. By 2001, China Life had captured 80 percent of the unified insurance business for the top 500 foreign firms operating in China.
China Life then began petitioning the CIRC for authorization to go public, which was granted in June 2003. As part of the run up to the company's IPO, China Life restructured its operations, splitting into three entities: China Life Insurance Company and China Life Asset Management Company, both of which were placed under a new holding company, China Life Insurance Corporation.
In order to make its IPO more attractive, the parent holding transferred only long- and medium-term policies issued on or after June 10, 1999, to China Life. This move was made in order to avoid launching China Life with the burden of a large number of loss-making policies issued at return rates as high as 6.5 percent. The June 10, 1999 date corresponded to an emergency ruling by the CIRC, which lowered return rates to just 2.5 percent.
To attract as wide a pool of investors as possible, China Life launched its IPO on both the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange in December 2003. The IPO was a huge success, raising $3.5 billion and becoming the world's largest for that year. The retail offer had been oversubscribed by 172 times, and the total order had reached $80 billion.
The success of its IPO encouraged China Life to begin eyeing expansion into new markets in 2004. China Life's unlisted parent company announced its intention to diversify its insurance business to include property insurance and develop an insurance intermediary agent business as well as add other financial services. China Life itself announced its intention to diversify into new services, such as asset management, brokerage services, and banking in the near future. In the meantime, China Life had emerged as the dominant player in what many expected to become the world's fastest-growing and largest life insurance market.
Principal Competitors: Ping An Insurance Company Ltd.; China Pacific Insurance Company Ltd.; AIG; AIU Insurance Co.; Allianz Dazhong Life Insurance Company Ltd.; Chubb Group of Insurance Cos.; Cigna Corporation; Manulife-Sinochem Life Insurance Company Ltd.