If it is not one thing then it is another. China’s entertainment-tech sector is feeling blow upon blow from an ongoing regulatory crackdown.
Companies such as Alibaba and Tencent which have been huge forces for modernization of China’s economy are repeatedly being fined and castigated by different regulators. In the case of Ant Group, an Alibaba spin-off, the company is currently being reconfigured on government order. As that happens, its market capitalization may have been crushed all the way down from $295 billion to perhaps $144 billion, according to fund management group Fidelity.
So, regulatory issues will likely dominate the upcoming reporting season for China’s listed entertainment tech leaders. A CEO’s crumbs of insight will be as closely listened to as any comments on trading conditions, post-COVID recovery and rising inflation. Especially as comparisons with the first quarter of 2020, when lockdowns were ordered and the Lunar New Year holidays were effectively canceled, will be at best tenuous.
For many companies the rumor mill is almost as financially damaging as the minutiae of regulatory intervention. The Hong Kong Tech Index, which includes many of the mainland’s leading tech firms fell 3% on Tuesday to 7,649. That is 12% down on the year so far, and 32% below the index’s peak at 10,945, just three months ago on Feb. 17, 2021.
Baidu, previously one of China’s three tech stars (and still the controlling shareholder of SVOD firm iQIYI), has so far escaped the worst lashings from China regulators. But on Monday its shares fell to HK$176.6, nearly 30% below the price of their recent secondary listing in Hong Kong.
The central government swing at the tech sector was well-signaled from the second half of last year when the government announced possible anti-trust action.
In some instances, the moves felt like delayed reactions. Fines for Alibaba and Tencent’s e-book and TV production offshoot China Literature punished the firms for their conduct of much earlier corporate acquisitions. But Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s candid comments about out-of-date finance industry regulation got an immediate reaction in November. The $35 million simultaneous IPO in Shanghai and Hong Kong was halted even as successful share buyers were being advised of their allocations.
Since then, the pressure has been piled on.
On Christmas Eve, the State Administration for Market Regulation announced a probe into Alibaba, the country’s largest e-commerce firm and one of its entertainment giants. The penalty, when it did come three months later, was a fine of $2.75 billion, mercifully only 4% of the group’s domestic China revenues, rather than the 10% theoretical maximum.
There was a moment of catharsis.
The SAMR has made it clear it is in charge of the “platform economy” and has helpfully brought into sharper focus some regulatory grey areas. China’s President Xi Jinping also went out of his way to insist that the ruling Communist Party and the state both support private business and seek a friendly environment for growth and expansion. He wants them to “develop boldly and with confidence,” he says.
But the moment of relief has been fleeting.
A few days after Alibaba’s fine, another 34 companies including Tencent, TikTok-owner Bytedance, newly-listed short video company Kuaishou, games distributor NetEase, video firm Bilibili and China Literature were hauled in for a dressing down jointly administered by the SAMR, Internet regulator the China Cyberspace Administration and the China Taxation Administration. They were warned to heed the example made of Alibaba, to conduct self-examination processes, while also avoiding crossing policy red lines in their treatment of suppliers, abusing consumer data or evading tax.
In late April, the SAMR imposed a fine of $77,200 each on Tencent, ride hailing firm Didi and eight other internet firms for making acquisitions of smaller companies that reduced competition.
Meituan, a digital services giant that is especially big in local food delivery services, was recently put on notice that it faces anti-trust probe similar to Alibaba. When its founder responded by using his personal social media account to post an ancient poem about the burning of books by a Tang dynasty emperor it was read as criticism of the government. The company’s shares plunged 7.1% and wiped out $16 billion of market value.
On Monday, the CAC said 36 mobile security apps and 48 online lending apps had infringed personal information through illegal data access, over-collection and excessive authorization. Offenders included Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu.
Tencent appears to have been warned that it may face a $1.5 billion fine from the SAMR. The regulator accuses the company of anti-competitive practices in its music business, notably over exclusive contracts with overseas music giants, and for gobbling up its smaller music streaming rivals. In a worst-case scenario, these may have to be hived off. Tencent’s expected punishment has not yet been made public.
NYSE and Hong Kong-listed Alibaba is due to report its first quarter figures on Thursday. Baidu, Douyu and iQIYI all report on Tuesday next week. Tencent’s keenly-awaited filing will be published two days later on April 20.