Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is poised to sell its 5% stake in Mango Excellent Media, which owns the highly popular Mango TV network. It is unclear whether this heralds a wider sell-off of Alibaba’s media empire.
The move, announced by Mango TV in a regulatory filing on Thursday, comes less than a year after Alibaba received state permission to buy the stake for RMB6.2 billion ($960 million at current exchange rates) and become Mango’s second largest stakeholder. The company said Alibaba would be seeking special permission to break the lockup agreement made at the time of the deal, which prevented it trading Mango shares for 12 months.
The December 2020 deal was unusual in that it created a connection between two of China’s top streaming platforms. Alibaba is the outright owner of Youku, China’ third ranked SVOD platform. It also meant that a private company was buying into a state-controlled media group. Mango is controlled by the regionally-owned Hunan Broadcasting System.
The December deal also came at a time when the Chinese government’s crackdown against the tech industry was only just getting going and its overall extent could only be guessed at. Days later, on Dec. 24 the State Administration for Market Regulation announced a formal anti-monopoly probe into Alibaba. That resulted in a fine of $2.7 billion for Alibaba, imposed in March 2021.
Around the time that the fine was announced, overseas media began to report that the government wanted Alibaba to break up or dispose of its vast array of media holdings, because the conglomerate has become too powerful and holds to much influence over the public.
Alibaba also amassed minority stakes in publisher Yicai Media (37%), Twitter-like social media platform Weibo (30%), video entertainment group Bilibili (6.7%) and Focus Media (5.3%), China’s top online advertising network. It also has stakes in film studios Huayi Bros. Media, Bona Film Group, film financier Hehe Pictures and exhibition chains Dadi Cinemas and Wanda Pictures.
There had been no sign of any dismantling was taking place until the recent Mango sale proposal. Nevertheless, financial news agency Bloomberg this week reports that the government wants Alibaba to sell media assets including the South China Morning Post, the largest English-language daily newspaper in Hong Kong, which it bought in 2016.
The hobbling of the tech sector has taken many forms. They include: fines for unauthorized mergers and acquisitions; limits on the use of user data and the introduction of the world’s toughest data privacy law; restrictions on the use of algorithms and recommendation engines; and a ferocious backlash against celebrity culture, which affects the companies’ live-streaming, e-commerce, video steaming and gaming businesses.
In many ways, the policies represent not just the end of a period of free-wheeling growth, but also a reversal of previous government thinking. At times the Chinese state has urged media and entertainment companies to venture overseas as part of a soft power push. Mainland firms including Alibaba and China Media Capital were urged to buy economic control of media in Hong Kong. And on other occasions, Beijing has corralled the highly profitable private sector tech firms into behind the scenes rescues of struggling state companies.
Now, the new direction of travel is about political control of more sectors of the economy and of civil society. Private sector companies are being told to make room for Communist Party representatives on their boards and at shop floor level. How far this process goes, whether it is anti-capitalist and, even, whether it amounts to a second Cultural Revolution is currently being debated in China.