Chinese authorities have recently shifted their approach towards China’s top platform tech companies. The crackdown that began in November 2020 with Ant Group’s cancelled IPO has now transitioned into extending an olive branch. By June 2023, China’s economy was struggling and youth unemployment had risen above 21 percent.
Author: Martin Miszerak, Renmin University
Since early 2023, Chinese authorities have started extending an olive branch to China’s top platform tech companies after over two years of ‘regulatory crackdown’. The crackdown started in November 2020 with the cancellation of the initial public offering (IPO) of e-commerce giant Ant Group — an affiliate of Alibaba.
Besides Ant Group, the ‘rectification’ affected most of China’s large platform companies. Yet by June 2023, a cold was blowing over China’s economy. The post-COVID-19 recovery was faltering. Youth unemployment rose above 21 per cent.
The authorities also likely concluded that they had accomplished most of the objectives of the rectification. At the China Development Forum in March 2023, Premier Li Qiang bent over backwards to assure prominent Western CEOs that China was welcoming the private sector, both foreign and domestic.
There is no consensus among academic and journalistic commentators about the crackdown’s ‘true’ objectives. One view holds that it was a personality clash between the ‘exuberance’ of Jack Ma — Alibaba’s founder and China’s most prominent private entrepreneur — and the fundamentally Maoist orientation of President Xi Jinping.
But a focus on Jack Ma ignores the fact that essentially all platform companies underwent some form of rectification. Another view holds that it was simply a scheme to clip the wings of China’s top private companies, given Xi Jinping’s embrace of the state-owned sector. Yet data showing an increasing penetration of China’s economy by large private companies belied Xi Jinping’s alleged hostility to the private sector.
Others maintain that a ‘great’ rectification was needed to align the mission of platform tech companies with Xi Jinping’s social policy objectives such as ‘common prosperity’ and the drive against ‘disorderly expansion of capital’. But the true objective of the crackdown had little to do with regulation, as authorities’ actions went beyond what might be considered an imposition of a stricter regulation.
Regulatory rectification was only a vehicle to accomplish other objectives. The crackdown was characterised by a spate of shareholder wealth destruction. Ant Group was headed for its IPO in November 2020 at an implied valuation of US$313 billion. Yet in July 2023, Ant Group launched a share buyback at a valuation that was 70 per cent lower. The global ride-sharing leader, Didi Chuxing, conducted its New York IPO in June 2021 at a valuation of US$70 billion. After a forced delisting from the New York Stock Exchange, it is currently trading over the counter with a market capitalisation of about US$16.7 billion.
The other side of the coin was the wealth extraction from platform companies to various state-owned entities. One instrument of extraction was in the form of unprecedented fines. Alibaba was fined US$2.8 billion in April 2021 for alleged abuse of market dominance.
Another method of extraction was through ‘voluntary’ contributions to causes championed by Xi Jinping. Tencent — the global game leader and investor in many start-ups — ‘earmarked’ US$7.7 billion in 2021 to a fund dedicated to ‘common prosperity’.
Another extraction mechanism was carried out through putting a brake on platform companies’ ability to grow. Didi was barred from…