China’s antitrust authority summoned 34 top internet companies to talk about new fair-competition rules. Within hours, they were discussing business changes and publicly pledging to stay in line.

“These new regulations are going to require internet platforms to look at how they innovate going forward, and the result is potentially less innovation,” said Gordon Orr, a nonexecutive board member at Meituan, the Chinese food delivery giant.

Even so, Alibaba and other internet titans have a status in China that could protect them from the most heavy-handed treatment. Officials have praised the titans’ economic contributions even as they tighten supervision. Mr. Xi wants China’s economy to be driven more by its own innovations than by those of fickle foreign powers.

That means it might be too soon to declare Jack Ma down for the count.

“His company is much more important to the success and functioning of the Chinese economy than any of the other entrepreneurs’,” Mr. McGregor said. “The government wants to continue to reap the benefits of his company — but on their terms. The government isn’t nationalizing Alibaba. It isn’t confiscating its assets. It’s simply narrowing the field in which it operates.”

Alibaba declined to comment.

Mr. Ma is no neophyte at dealing with the authorities in China.

He worked briefly and unhappily at a government-run advertising agency before founding Alibaba in 1999. At the time, China was still getting used to the idea of powerful private entrepreneurs, and Mr. Ma proved adept at charming government officials.

in the 2000s. “What a world-class company needs most is a soul, a commander, a world-class businessman. Jack Ma, I believe, meets this standard.”

Mr. Ma saw early on what success might bring with it in China, said Porter Erisman, an early Alibaba executive.

“There was only one person in the company who brought to our attention that one day we might face issues of being so big that we would come under pressure for having too much market power,” Mr. Erisman said. “And that was Jack.”

one of Alibaba’s biggest investors, Yahoo. Mr. Ma said the move had been necessary under new Chinese regulations. Alipay later became Ant Group.

“The Alipay transfer emboldened him,” said Duncan Clark, who has known Mr. Ma since 1999 and is chairman of BDA China, a consulting firm. “He kind of got away with it.”

work more closely with the state.

When Mr. Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman in 2019, a commentary in the official Communist Party newspaper declared: “There is no so-called Jack Ma era — only Jack Ma as part of this era.”

China’s leaders need the private sector to help sustain economic growth. But they also do not want entrepreneurs to undermine the party’s dominance across society.

Last October, as Ant was preparing to go public, Mr. Ma spoke at a Shanghai conference and criticized China’s financial regulators. He had long seen Ant as a vehicle for disrupting the country’s big state-run banks. But there could scarcely have been a less opportune moment to press the point. Officials halted Ant’s share listing soon after.

In China, “it’s hard to say the emperor has no clothes these days,” said Kellee S. Tsai, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Mr. Ma has largely vanished from sight within his companies, too. In January, he popped up in an internal chat group to answer a business question, according to a person who saw the message but was not authorized to speak publicly. Employees later shared Mr. Ma’s message to reassure nervous colleagues.

estimated that Mr. Ma was not, for the first time in three years, one of China’s three richest people. The country’s new No. 1 was Zhong Shanshan, the low-key head of both a bottled-water giant and a pharmaceutical business.

Chinese news reports about his sudden wealth had to explain to readers how to pronounce the obscure Chinese character in his name.

View Source

A Global Tipping Point for Reining In Tech Has Arrived

On Dec. 9, the Federal Trade Commission and nearly every state filed bipartisan lawsuits accusing Facebook of acting anticompetitively. Less than a week later, European policymakers introduced a competition law and new requirements for blocking online hate speech. On Dec. 24, Chinese regulators opened an antitrust investigation into Alibaba after scuppering an initial public offering from Ant.

Antitrust and content moderation have been where tech companies are most vulnerable. Google, Facebook, Apple, Alibaba, Amazon and other companies clearly dominate online advertising, search, e-commerce and app marketplaces, and have faced questions about whether they have unduly used their clout to buy competitors, promote their own products ahead of others and block rivals.

The companies also face scrutiny about how hate speech and other noxious online material can spill into the offline world, leading to calls to better control content.

The antitrust push has especially sharpened in the United States, with landmark suits filed against Google and Facebook last year. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have said they are drafting new antitrust, privacy and speech regulations targeting Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon. They have also proposed trimming a law that shields sites like YouTube, which Google owns, from lawsuits over content posted by their users.

“This is a monopoly moment. Not just for the United States but for the entire world,” the chairman of the House antitrust subcommittee, David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, said in a statement. “Countries need to work together in order to take on the monopoly power held by the largest tech platforms and restore competition and innovation to the digital economy.”

Mr. Biden has also picked tech critics for key administration roles. Tim Wu, a law professor who supports a breakup of Facebook, joined the White House last month, while Lina Khan, a law professor who has been influential on tech antitrust, was nominated to a seat on the Federal Trade Commission.

View Source

Ant Group Announces Overhaul as China Tightens Its Grip

Ant Group, the online finance affiliate of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, announced a sweeping overhaul of its business on Monday in response to demands from China’s government, which is moving swiftly to curb the power of the country’s internet giants.

Beijing’s campaign has taken the corporate empire of Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire co-founder and Ant’s controlling shareholder, as an early major target. On Saturday, China’s antitrust authority fined Alibaba $2.8 billion for abusing its dominance in digital retail — a record amount for violations of the country’s antimonopoly law.

As part of what both Ant Group and Chinese officials called a “rectification plan,” the company on Monday said it would apply to set up as a financial holding company, which would bring closer supervision and requirements that it hold onto more money that it might otherwise lend or put to profitable use.

Ant also said it would change the way it collects and uses personal information to improve data security and prevent abuse. And it said it would improve corporate governance to better adhere to rules about fair competition.

said in a statement. “Using the rectification as an opportunity, Ant Group will reinforce our commitment to serve consumers, small businesses and the real economy.”

Chinese officials forced Ant to call off its blockbuster initial public offering last November, mere days before its shares had been expected to debut. A month later, regulators ordered Ant to correct what they called a litany of failings in its business, which includes a range of financial services, from payments to credit, that are offered through its Alipay app.

Alipay’s user base of more than 700 million people in China gives Ant huge sway within the country’s financial system.

China first said last September that companies owning two or more financial businesses would have to register as financial holding companies and be subject to increased government oversight. In a news briefing at the time, an official at China’s central bank named Ant as one of several companies that would likely have to restructure under the new rules.

The aim, officials said, is to better monitor systemic risks that have arisen as more nonfinancial companies have “blindly” entered the financial industry.

View Source

Alibaba Faces $2.8 Billion Fine From Chinese Regulators

China on Saturday said it was imposing a record $2.8 billion fine on the e-commerce titan Alibaba for monopolistic business practices, the government’s toughest action to date in its campaign to regulate the country’s internet giants more closely.

Beijing’s market watchdog began investigating Alibaba in December for potential antitrust violations including preventing merchants from selling their goods on other shopping platforms. On Saturday, the regulator said its investigation had concluded that Alibaba had hindered competition in online retail in China, affected innovation in the internet economy and harmed consumers’ interests.

The fine on Alibaba, one of China’s most valuable private companies, exceeds the $975 million antitrust penalty that the Chinese government imposed on Qualcomm, the American chip giant, in 2015. Even so, it is unlikely to leave a substantial dent on Alibaba’s fortunes. The regulator said the fine represented 4 percent of Alibaba’s domestic sales in 2019. The group reported profits of more than $12 billion in the last three months of 2020 alone.

Alibaba said in a statement that it would accept the penalty “sincerely” and would strengthen its internal systems “to better carry out its social responsibilities.”

proposed updating the country’s antimonopoly law with a new provision for large internet platforms such as Alibaba’s. In November, officials halted the plans of Alibaba’s sister company, the finance-focused Ant Group, to go public and tightened oversight of internet finance.

In December, it opened the antimonopoly investigation into Alibaba — a startling turn in the fortunes of Jack Ma, Alibaba’s co-founder, whom people in China had long held up as an icon of entrepreneurial pluck.

Skepticism about the clout of large internet companies has been on the rise in the United States and Europe, too. Western regulators have repeatedly fined Goliaths such as Google in recent years for various antitrust violations. But such penalties generally have not changed the nature of the companies’ businesses enough to mitigate concerns about their power.

View Source