I had planned to take time off during this Christmas week and enjoy the rustic island of Moloka‘i. But the announcement of an antitrust probe on Alibaba, dropped on Christmas Eve (and consequently dropped Alibaba’s stock price by 13%), is too interesting not to write about.

(The format of this post will be a hybrid of my usual Thursday and Sunday posts -- some deep dive thoughts combined with a few news items plus commentaries.)

On a micro-level, the timing of this announcement is curious. As someone of you know, I spent most of my 20s working in the realm of political communications (the White House, Department of Commerce, etc.), so I’m extra attuned to timing. To me, the timing of news is as important as the news itself. There’s no doubt that this announcement is bad for Alibaba in the short-term, but it is also anticipated, and the State Administration for Market Regulations (SAMR) could’ve announced it at any time. SAMR’s timing choice is a rather nice gesture to Alibaba, the biggest Chinese tech company with the most exposure to the US capital market, by picking a light trading day before a major western holiday. In media and communications, when you want to bury some negative news, you release it on a “take out the trash day”, usually a Friday or before a holiday. SAMR picked arguably the biggest “take out the trash day.”

Zooming out, the often-repeated storyline of Xi using his power to put Ma in his place after his Bund Finance Summit speech fits neatly within the dominant narrative about how the world views China at large. While this narrative certainly contains some truth, it also papers over the complexities within China’s technology, entrepreneurial, and development ecosystem. To the detriment of improving our understanding, this narrative continues to get recycled in the absence of new information or new thinking.

I’ve attempted to analyze Ma’s speech in the broader context of China’s P2P lending market in “Jack Ma, P2P Lending, Responsibility, Legacy”. The most curious and under-analyzed part about the whole suspended Ant IPO saga is why would Ma say what he said the day after Ant priced its public offering. There is also an obsession with Ma’s wealth and flamboyant personality, so much so that much of the coverage is fixated on how much money he had lost from the suspended IPO and his low public profile since the speech. The truth is there’s much schadenfreude against Ma in China and understandably so; human jealousy of other people’s wealth and flamboyance is as old as time. It’s not hard to find “sources” willing to share hottakes and dunk on Ma’s seeming misfortune. But that’s missing the forest for the tree.

China is both one of the oldest civilizations in the world and one of the youngest countries in the world. That youth shows when it comes to regulating a market-driven economy and a technology platform like the Internet; both new to China and both embodied in today’s antitrust.

This youth can cut both ways. The negative is obvious -- lack of rule-making experience and legal precedent. (The only antitrust precedent of any significance in China is the 3Q War between Tencent and Qihoo360 that started in 2010 and concluded in 2014. Tencent was accused of anti-competitive behaviors against Qihoo’s virus scanning software; Tencent prevailed.)

The positive is harder to notice but no less valuable. There is no regulatory debt, thus a more sensible regulatory framework has a better chance of getting created that better matches our time, our technologies, and people’s aspirations. That debt is arguably what’s keeping the US from effectively regulating the new crop of Big Tech by mostly applying a legal framework that was rooted in regulating big oil and steel companies in the 1890s. The consumer welfare framework doesn’t quite work when most of the Big Tech’s products and services are either dirt cheap or completely free. The “choose one out of two” practice that lies at the core of this antitrust investigation against Alibaba is also about a merchant’s freedom to choose which platform to sell, not a consumer’s freedom to find the best deals. It’s time for some “fresh” regulatory thinking, perhaps even with some Chinese characteristics. How will a country that still nationalizes most of its strategic industries with state-owned enterprises – definitionally monopolistic – credibly promulgate antitrust policies is even more intriguing.

There’s also a common stereotype that entrepreneurs, as a class of people, automatically dislike all forms of regulations. That’s not necessarily true. Jack Ma literally asked for regulations in his speech (and got it). No rules may be ok, but clear, stable, and sensible rules are better, because innovation requires both openness and constraints. The worst scenario is ambiguity.

As you will see in my commentaries of the following news items, as far as antitrust is concerned, ambiguity is where China is now and trying not to be in the future.

Disclaimer: all translated article titles below are done by me, not official translations from the media outlets.

The State Administration for Market Regulations opened an investigation into Alibaba Group's suspected monopolistic behavior in accordance with the law” (Chinese Source: State Administration for Market Regulations)

My thoughts: This is the official SAMR announcement and only one sentence long: “Recently, based on complaint received, the State Administration for Market Regulations opened an investigation into Alibaba Group Holdings Limited for alleged monopolistic practices, such as ‘choose one out of two.’” This announcement’s noteworthiness lies in its brevity and specificity. It named Alibaba’s e-commerce practice of “choose one out of two”, signaling that the investigation has a tight scope and isn’t expansive as to include other business lines or products related to Ant. The “complaint” most likely refers to JD.com’s grievance filed in 2015 about being a victim of “choose one out of two”, which has yet to be resolved, leaving much ambiguity in the industry.

Strengthening antitrust regulation is better for development” (Chinese Source: People’s Daily)

My thoughts: This People’s Daily column is as close to an official opinion of the antitrust probe as outsiders will get. Two portions stood out to me. First is its explicit reference to the wave of antitrust investigations and fines placed on US-based big tech companies in the last few years by both American and European regulators. The column tries to couch China’s own action as a part of this global regulatory trend. Second is its last two paragraphs, which painstakingly clarifies that the antitrust investigation against Alibaba “does not signify any change in the country’s encouraging and supportive attitude towards the platform economy.” The “platform economy” here is a broad umbrella term for the Internet economy as a whole, driven by China's own big tech firms. These paragraphs’ repeated mentioning of “healthy development” also (coincidentally?) echoes Ma’s frequent mentioning of “healthy and sustainable development” in his own speech.

Jack Ma's Bund Finance Summit Speech” (English Source: Interconnected)

My Thoughts: With the People’s Daily column in mind, it’s worth re-reading Ma’s Bund Finance Summit speech in its entirety. (It feels a bit weird linking to my own translation of the speech, but I have yet to find a complete English version of it elsewhere.) The most notable part is his own interpretation of Xi’s words when it comes to government regulatory ability:

“Based on my understanding, what President Xi said about “enhancing governing ability” means to maintain healthy and sustainable development under orderly regulation, not no development due to regulation. It is not difficult to regulate. What’s difficult is to deliver regulation that achieves the purpose of producing sustainable and healthy development.”

Breaking! Alibaba suspected of monopoly, official investigation filed” (Chinese Source: InfoQ)

My thoughts: Most of the Chinese language business and tech media I follow have been quite muted about the antitrust probe news. The typical coverage is a brief mention of the announcement and how much Alibaba’s stock price fell as a result. This article from InfoQ, an IT trade publication I regularly read, is an exception that went into more depth. Based on the reporting, it looks like Ant Group is already making changes internally, in anticipation of larger changes to come. For one, its consumer lending product, Huabei (or “Just Spend”), has unilaterally reduced its lending amount (in some cases from 10,000 RMB to 3,000 RMB, as shown in the screenshot below). This change is framed as promoting more responsible spending behaviors to its mostly young users. More interestingly, Ant’s many (many) subsidiaries across China are also going through some corporate restructuring to isolate its financial service units from other product lines, possibly in preparation for adapting to new rules or even some government ownership. Alibaba is infamous for having a complicated, convoluted corporate structure. Ant is not much different. It is not just a financial services company, but has a large business portfolio in industries like cloud computing, infrastructure technology, and blockchain.

China’s Antitrust Probe Zeroes In on Vendor Claims of Alibaba Pressure” (English Source: Wall Street Journal)

My Thoughts: This WSJ article is one of the few I read from Western media that provided useful information and did not fall back on the recycled narrative I discussed earlier in this post. It provided good context on the timeline around JD.com’s complaint to regulators in 2015 and subsequent lawsuit in 2017 against Alibaba’s “choose one out of two” behavior, which is important to keep in mind. Neither the complaint nor the lawsuit has been resolved -- a dereliction of duty on the regulator’s part. Most of the antitrust-related policy documents were not announced until this year. If there’s anything worth being surprised about with this Christmas Eve antitrust announcement, it’s how long it took to get here -- and how much longer it might’ve taken still, if Ma didn’t ruffle some feathers.

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(这篇文章的格式将是我通常周四和周日文章的混合体 -- 一部分是个人的深入分析和想法,另一部分是对一些有关新闻的评论。)

从微观层面来看,这条官宣的时间点很有意思。有些读者可能知道,我20多岁时的大部分时间都在从事与政治新闻传媒有关的工作(白宫、商务部等),所以我对时间点的把握格外敏感。对我来说,新闻宣布的时机和新闻本身的内容一样重要。毫无疑问,这条新闻短期内对阿里非常不利,但也在意料之中,国家市场监管总局想什么时候宣布都是可以的。最终选择的时间点对阿里这个与美国资本市场关连最多的中国科技公司来说,选择在西方重大节日(圣诞节)的前一天,也是个股市交易量很少的一天,给阿里留了不少面子。在媒体和传播领域,若想把一些负面新闻给“埋了”,做法就是挑一个 "倒垃圾日" 发布,通常是周五或节假日前。市场监管总局选择了所有 "倒垃圾日" 里可以说是最大的 "倒垃圾日"。


我在《马云,P2P借贷,责任,留给社会的遗产》一文中,试图以中国P2P贷款市场的大背景下去分析马云的演讲。在整个暂停蚂蚁IPO的风波中,最让人好奇也是最分析不足的一点就是为什么马云会在蚂蚁上市定价的第二天去做他做了的演讲,说了他说出的话。还有就是媒体对马云个人财富和浮夸个性的“迷恋”,以至于绝大多数报道就盯着马云因暂停蚂蚁IPO而损失了多少钱,以及他在外滩演讲后的所谓“低调”。事实上,在中国有很多针对马云的“幸灾乐祸”,也是可以理解的。人类对他人财富和浮夸的嫉妒自古就存在,因此也不难找到许多 "知情人士" 愿意分享不看好马云的多种“专家意见”。但这种报道会忽略对未来更有影响的故事。



“利”这一面更微妙些,但极有价值,即没有“监管体制债”,因此一个更合理的监管框架更有可能被创造出来,这个新框架更符合当前的时代、科技和人们的愿望。这种“监管体制债”可以说是美国目前还无法有效的管制新一批科技巨头的主要原因,法律框架的根基还是19世纪90年代用于监管石油和钢铁大公司的方法。当科技巨头们的大部分产品和服务要么价格低廉,要么完全免费时,以保护消费者福利这个框架看事情就不太行得通了。这次针对阿里的反垄断调查的核心是 "二选一 ",它其实是关于商家选择哪个平台卖产品的自由,而不是消费者寻找最佳利益的自由。是时候有些 "新鲜" 的监管思路了,或许还加些 “中国特色”。一个仍然将大部分有战略意义的产业通过国企(本质就是垄断性的)国有化的国家,又将如何有信誉地推动反垄断政策更加耐人寻味。




市场监管总局依法对阿里巴巴集团涉嫌垄断行为立案调查”  (中文来源: 市场监管总局)

我的想法: 这是国家市场监管总局对调查的官方公告。整条公告只有一句话:"近日,市场监管总局根据举报,依法对阿里巴巴集团控股有限公司实施“二选一”等涉嫌垄断行为立案调查。" 这份公告值得注意的地方在于它短又具体。它点名了阿里 "二选一 "的做法,证明调查范围很具体,并没有扩张到包括与蚂蚁相关的其他业务线或产品。而其中指的 "投诉" 很有可能是指京东在2015年提出的关于成为 "二选一 "受害者的申诉,至今尚未得到解决,从而给业界留下了很多“模棱两可”的空间。

加强反垄断监管是为了更好发展” (中文来源: 人民日报)

我的想法:  这篇《人民日报》的专栏,是外界能看到的对反垄断调查最接近官方的姿态,其中有两部分内容值得一提。首先是它明确提到了过去几年美国和欧盟监管机构对美国各个科技巨头的反垄断调查和罚款的浪潮。该专栏试图将中国自身的行动也作为这一全球监管趋势的一部分。其次是文章的最后两段,煞费苦心地澄清,对阿里的反垄断调查 "并不意味着国家对平台经济鼓励、支持的态度有所改变"。这里的 "平台经济" 是对整个互联网经济的广义总称,由中国自己的科技巨头们在推动。这几段反复提到的 "健康发展",也与马云演讲中多次提到的 "可持续的健康发展" 不谋而同。

马云上海外滩金融论坛演讲全文”(中文来源: 奇点财经)

我的想法: 看完《人民日报》的专栏后,也应该重新读一遍马云的外滩金融峰会的演讲全文。最值得注意的一段就是谈到政府监管能力时,他对习近平主席的话的解读:


突发!阿里巴巴涉嫌垄断被立案调查”  (中文来源: InfoQ)

我的想法: 我所关注的大部分中文商业和科技媒体对反垄断调查这条消息都是轻描淡写。一般的报道就是简单提到公告,再加上阿里的股价因此跌了多少。这篇《InfoQ》的文章是唯一的例外,它的报道很深入。据文章内容来看,蚂蚁集团已经开始在内部进行变革,以应对未来更大的变化。其一,旗下消费贷产品花呗已经单方面开始降低借贷额度(有些从1万元降到3000元,如下图截图所示)。这一变动的说法是为了向其大部分年轻用户推广更合理负责的消费行为。还有,蚂蚁在全国各地众多的子公司们也在进行企业重组,将金融服务部门与其他产品线隔离开来,这可能是为了适应未来新的监管规则,甚至为了给政府一定的所有权做准备。阿里集团公司结构的错综复杂是出了名的。蚂蚁集团也是如此。它不仅仅是一家金融服务公司,在云计算、基础科技和区块链等领域里都有业务。

中国反垄断调查专注于应商指控阿里巴巴施压”(英文来源: 华尔街日报)

我的想法: 这篇华尔街日报的文章是我读到的为数不多的有信息量的西方媒体,并且没有继续重复我之前提到的主流叙述视角。它提供了与京东在2015年向监管机构投诉以及随后在2017年对阿里的 "二选一" 行为提起诉讼的背景信息和时间线,这一点很重要。无论是投诉还是诉讼都还没有得到解决,这是监管部门的失职。大部分与反垄断相关的政策文件都是今年才开始公布的。如果谈圣诞节前夕的反垄断调查公告有什么值得惊讶的地方,那就是它花了多么长时间才走到这一步。如果马云没有“嚣张”一下,是不是还会拖得更久呢?