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Jack Ma's double-whammy marks the end of China tech's Golden Age

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Published in Business News

The full implications of Beijing’s rapid-fire moves against Jack Ma’s internet empire in recent days won’t be apparent for weeks, but one lesson is already clear: The glory days for China’s technology giants are over.

The country’s government imprinted its authority indelibly on the country’s technology industry in the span of a few days. In landmark announcements, it slapped a record $2.8 billion fine on Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. for abusing its market dominance, then ordered an overhaul of Ant Group Co. On Tuesday, regulators summoned 34 of the country’s largest companies from Tencent Holdings Ltd. to TikTok owner ByteDance Ltd., warning them “the red line of laws cannot be touched.”

The unspoken message to Ma and his cohorts was the decade of unfettered expansion that created challengers to Facebook Inc. and Google was at an end. Gone are the days when giants like Alibaba, Ant or Tencent could steamroll incumbents in adjacent businesses with their superior financial might and data hoards.

“Between the rules for Ant and the $2.8 billion fine for Alibaba, the golden days are over for China’s big tech firms,” said Mark Tanner, founder of Shanghai-based China Skinny. “Even those who haven’t been targeted to the same extreme will be toning down their expansion strategies and adapting many elements of their business to the new bridled environment.”

Tech companies are likely to move far more cautiously on acquisitions, over-compensate on getting signoffs from Beijing, and levy lower fees on the domestic internet traffic they dominate. Ant in particular will have to find ways to untether China’s largest payments service from its fast-growth consumer lending business and shrink its signature Yu’ebao money market fund — once the world’s largest.

Even companies that have been less scrutinized so far — like Tencent or Meituan and Pinduoduo Inc. — are likely to see growth opportunities curtailed.

 

The watershed moment was years in the making. In the early part of the last decade, visionary entrepreneurs like Ma and Tencent co-founder Pony Ma (no relation) created multi-billion dollar empires by up-ending businesses from retail to communications, elevating the lives of hundreds of millions and serving as role models for an increasingly affluent younger generation. But the enormous opportunities coupled with years of hyper-growth also fostered a winner-takes-all land-grab mentality that unnerved the Communist Party.

Regulators grew concerned as the likes of Alibaba and Tencent aggressively safeguarded and extended their moats, using data to squeeze out rivals or forcing merchants and content publishers into exclusive arrangements. Their growing influence over every aspect of Chinese life became more apparent as they became the conduits through which many of the country’s 1.3 billion bought and paid for things — handing over vast amounts of data on spending behavior. Chief among them were Alibaba and Tencent, who became the industry’s kingmakers by investing billions of dollars into hundreds of startups.

All that came to a head in 2020 when Ma — on the verge of ushering in Ant’s record $35 billion IPO — publicly denigrated out-of-touch regulators and the “old men” of the powerful banking industry.

The unprecedented series of regulatory actions since encapsulates how Beijing is now intent on reining in its internet and fintech giants, a broad campaign that’s wiped roughly $200 billion off Alibaba’s valuation since October. The e-commerce giant’s speedy capitulation after a four-month probe underscores its vulnerability to further regulatory action.

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