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In virus-hit China, open a bank account, get free masks

[SHANGHAI/BEIJING] China's banks, aiming to kick start business after a the coronavirus outbreak prompted a nationwide shutdown, have found a novel way to lure customers: free masks.

Economic activity is starting to get into gear, after a period in which the government cut transport links and locked down cities at the end of January to slow the spread of the contagious virus responsible for over 3,000 deaths in the country.

As the number of new virus cases fell, lenders found themselves between policy initiatives to lend to virus-stricken firms, and the prospect of sour debt as companies struggled.

To lure much-needed customers, banks across the country have started to offer the hottest commodity in town - masks, popularly believed as helping prevent contagion - to new customers for everything from signing up to an app to opening a deposit account.

Though the government has declared the peak of the virus has passed, in some areas masks and disinfectant are still in short supply, as cities continue to bar those without masks from entering public places.

At China Everbright Bank Co, customers who link their debit or credit cards to their WeChat pay accounts and transfer 0.01 yuan (0.2 Singapore cent) will be entitled to five masks.

"Everyone is very enthusiastic, it's hot," said Liu Huan, a person managing the offer at the bank.

THE BIG GIVEAWAY

At one branch of the Bank of Wuhai in northern Inner Mongolia, customers receive free masks if they sign up for fixed-term deposits of over 10,000 yuan, or buy 50,000 yuan worth of wealth management products, among other offerings, showed a post on the lender's WeChat account.

The Hunan Hengdong Rural Commercial Bank said in late February it would give customers who made deposits masks, disinfectant and alcohol wipes.

Last week, Zhejiang Mintai Commercial Bank said it would give masks to those aged over 50 who signed up to their app.

Even Panzhou Wanhe Country Bank, a rural lender with just five branches in remote Liupanshui in Guizhou province, began giving out two free masks to anyone opening accounts from March 6.

In a more creative giveaway, in the coastal city of Qingdao, local branches of the state-owned Postal Savings Bank of China Co had 100 masks a day up for grabs, which could be won by mobile clients entering a lottery.

Before the outbreak, China's banks were already under pressure as loan prime rate reform shaved margins and the US-Sino trade war deterred borrowing in the manufacturing.

On Monday, China's economic indicators plunged to historic lows, evidence that the impact of the virus may be far worse than widely expected and is likely to weigh further on already struggling banks.

While insurers are faring better, many are also dangling free masks and other necessities as incentives.

In Shangahi, managers at the giant Ping An Insurance Group Co of China have been giving away masks, sanitiser and alcohol spray to clients since late-February, according to social media posts.

Their marketing phrase: "Masks give you one-off protection, but insurance protection is for life."

REUTERS