Larry Berman: Tracking China's tech sector
China ordered 34 internet corporations Tuesday to rectify their anti-competitive practices within the next month, signaling that Beijing’s scrutiny of its most powerful firms hasn’t ended with the conclusion of a probe into Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
Shares in Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Meituan extended losses after the State Administration for Market Regulation issued a stern statement emphasizing it will continue to eradicate abuses of information and market dominance among other violations. Also summoned to an ad-hoc meeting with the watchdog on Tuesday were industry leaders including TikTok owner ByteDance Ltd., search giant Baidu Inc. and JD.com Inc.
Regulators warned internet companies to “heed Alibaba’s example,” reaffirming their intent to abolish forced exclusivity among other practices. The meeting -- organized jointly with the cyberspace and tax regulators -- came days after Beijing wrapped up a four-month probe into Alibaba by slapping a record US$2.8 billion fine on the e-commerce giant for abuse of market dominance.
The penalty was less severe than many feared and lifted a cloud of uncertainty hanging over founder Jack Ma’s internet empire. It also came after the Chinese central bank ordered an overhaul of his Ant Group Co. fintech titan.
Alibaba’s shares have gained 7 per cent since the start of the week, but its fellow Chinese internet giants have gyrated while investors digest the rapid-fire announcements and concerns grow that Beijing’s scrutiny will extend beyond Alibaba. On Tuesday, Tencent gave up early gains to finish down slightly while Meituan, video service Kuaishou Technology and JD all slid more than 3 per cent in Hong Kong.
“The base line of policies cannot be crossed, the red line of laws cannot be touched,” the market watchdog said in the statement on Tuesday.
The investigation into Alibaba was one of the opening salvos in a campaign seemingly designed to curb the power of China’s internet leaders, which kicked off after Ma infamously rebuked “pawn shop” lenders, regulators who don’t get the internet, and the “old men” of the global banking community. Those comments set in motion an unprecedented regulatory offensive, including scuttling Ant’s US$35 billion initial public offering.
The 34 firms summoned Tuesday must now undergo complete rectification after conducting internal checks and inspections over the next month, and make a pledge to society to obey rules and laws, the antitrust watchdog said in its statement. Regulators will organize follow-up inspections and companies that continue to engage in abuses like forced exclusivity -- a practice that “flagrantly trampled and destroyed” market order -- will be dealt with severely.
The regulator also highlighted abuses like acquisitions that squeeze out smaller rivals and burning through cash to grab market share in community group buying, currently the hottest e-commerce arena in China. Firms also need to address issues like counterfeiting, data leaks and tax evasion, according to the statement.
“This is positive because the SAMR is giving the platforms one month to review their practices, rather than dish out fines and penalties without warning,” Bloomberg Intelligence senior analyst Vey-Sern Ling said. “They are using Alibaba as an example to deter misbehavior from the rest of the industry players. If these companies toe the line, industry competition can become healthier. ”