Alibaba’s rivals on alert after China’s regulators hand out record fine

China’s technology giants are expecting increased scrutiny and penalties after Alibaba’s record $2.8bn fine on Saturday for antitrust violations.

Employees at Tencent Music and Meituan are concerned they could be targeted next by Beijing’s emboldened competition regulators, who have stepped up scrutiny on dealmaking and anti-competitive practices in its once lightly regulated technology sector.

Unlike the antitrust investigation into Alibaba’s ecommerce practices, an antitrust investigation into social media giant Tencent would be more complicated, said a Shenzhen official who oversees tech companies.

Such an investigation could cover their gaming business, music licensing, online lending and their M&A empire, the official added. Of all China’s non-financial companies, Tencent invested the most in start-ups last year.

Last month, Tencent said it had sought out a meeting with antitrust regulators, who had previously fined it for not proactively seeking approval on previous acquisitions.

Tencent Music, Tencent’s joint venture with Spotify, has also been preparing to face an antitrust investigation into their licensing deals, and had deliberately given up some deals in recent months as a result, said four employees in the unit.

The official added the investigation could also look into the way Tencent’s WeChat social media platform — so dominant in China that it is often referred to by users as a “public utility” — blocks the loading of links from rivals, Alibaba’s Taobao and short video platform Douyin. Tencent maintains this is a result of their general policies protecting users from certain third-party links, and that they allow rival platforms to host their own WeChat channels.

However, the official admitted that Tencent has plenty of strategies to avoid the worst trouble. “Tencent’s government relations guys are really good. Accepting some penalties are just a gesture to show your obedience.”

Earlier in March, the State Administration for Market Regulation fined Alibaba, Tencent, and lifestyle services group Meituan, along with ecommerce platform Pinduoduo and ride-hailing service Didi, for “improper pricing behaviour” in their discount grocery group-buying schemes.

A Meituan employee working in the grocery group-buying unit, which had received the Rmb1.5m fine in March, said he believed Meituan is now just waiting to be fined again.

“To be honest I think there is nothing we can do to prepare for regulation,” he said.

“I don’t think [a new fine] will have a big impact. We all got fined [in March]. Then we continued . . . There is no change in our product operation and strategies,” the employee added. Meituan declined to comment.

Buoyed by bumper revenues from stay-at-home shoppers, these fines would have caused little financial pain for China’s tech giants, Alibaba’s record fine was set at 4 per cent of its 2019 revenues, but the increased scrutiny could cause a change in the groups’ behaviour, said Angela Zhang, a legal scholar and author of Chinese Antitrust Exceptionalism.

“This is a very dynamic process. Because of the power imbalances between the Chinese government and businesses, these businesses are more likely to bow to the government’s demand in China. This explains their high level of co-operation, or even pre-emptive co-operation,” said Zhang.

But, she added: “Chinese tech firms have been incredibly adapted to China’s unique political and economic governance”.

Alibaba’s fine and the increase in penalties over the past few months comes as regulators in the EU and the UK are proposing new measures to rein in US tech giants.

But while EU regulators have warned of breaking up the tech giants, analysts suggest the Chinese groups had been previously successful in lobbying over the country’s first antitrust guidelines, as these had been watered down from previously circulated drafts. Alibaba and Tencent have also hired multiple former anti-monopoly officials over the years.

While the long-term impact of the renewed antitrust drive remains unclear, it is certain in China that tech companies will at least act apologetic in public, as Alibaba did on Saturday.

“Everyone with a clear mind won’t self-regulate, you just pretend that you do. Who will pay for the loss if you lost your competitive advantage because you self-regulated and others didn’t?” said the Meituan employee.

Additional reporting by Qianer Liu in Shenzhen and Nian Liu in Beijing

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