Manulife-Sinochem Life Insurance has become the latest insurer to launch group life insurance in China, rolling out three product packages in four of the cities which it has a presence. The announcement comes after months of solid preparation by the joint venture between Manulife (International) and the China Foreign Economic and Trade Trust & Investment Company, a member of the Sinochem group. The announcement comes after the Chinese government lifted product restrictions for foreign insurers under WTO guidelines.

Initially, the joint venture will launch its group insurance platform to employers in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing and Ningbo, with plans to extend the offering into Foshan, Dongguan, Hangzhou and Nanjing some time in the near future.

The three product offerings have been divided into what the insurer terms "Classic," "Premier," and "Elite" packages to satisfy various needs of those companies participating in group policies. The Classic Package targets the basic protection needs of small-to-mid sized companies, comprising of accidental death and dismemberment and accidental hospitalisation products. The Premier will include accidental, life and hospitalisation insurance. On the other hand, the Elite consists of a wider range of protection products, including accidental and life protection, hospitalisation income and critical illness.

In addition, companies under the Manulife-Sinochem group insurance plan will have access to employee benefit seminars and various VIP club activities. Value-added health management services including online health profiles, discounted health checks, major disease forecasts and health consultation through a third-party healthcare management company will also be available.

In the future, the insurer also plans to offer a full-range of group insurance benefits as part of a tailor-made plan. The move comes after Manulife-Sinochem's April announcement that it was to become the first foreign insurer to gain a foothold in Zhejiang province in the port city of Ningbo. According to the insurer, further expansions into at least three more branches are in the pipeline.

"Manulife-Sinochem has opened four branches in China and is operational in six cities," says James Lin, general manager of Manulife-Sinochem. "The Company will open three or four more branches this year and plans to devote even more resources into developing the group insurance business in each of these cities. Manulife as a whole is placing great emphasis on the expansion of its China operations, and as part of this strategy we plan to build our group and future corporate pension business into significant lines of business for Manulife-Sinochem."

Manulife-Sinochem's move into the group insurance sphere follows other foreign players entering this lucrative area of China's life insurance market, which is estimated to top out at 100 billion yuan ($12 billion) in 2006. The decision also comes at a time when the joint venture is aiming to further increase its nationwide branch network, with a Nanjing subsidiary expected to be operational in November.