The authorities’ decision to exercise control over media coverage of the leading group’s woes shows that the issue has become a matter of national political sensitivity in China.
Beijing has cracked down on Mr. Ma’s business empire in recent months. The initial $ 37 billion public offering by Alibaba’s payments subsidiary Ant Group was called off by authorities at the last minute in November, while the following month, competition regulators announced an anti-monopoly investigation into Alibaba.
In his last public appearance in October, Mr. Ma, one of the richest people in the country, gave a speech criticizing Chinese state banks and financial regulators.
In late December, the Chinese government’s propaganda branch ordered the media to “strictly invoke” the official line on the Alibaba antitrust investigation and “not to make any changes or engage in in-depth analysis without permission.”
“If a company’s ads clash with the official position, don’t post, repost, don’t quote foreign media,” the directive said, according to two people who read it.
Government spokesman People’s Daily criticized China’s tech industry for its pursuit of “ever-higher market concentration,” saying increased market surveillance was important for the healthy development of the market. ‘economy.
“This directive is harsh and unusual,” said Xiao Qiang, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley School of Information. ” Language [of the directive] is quite similar to the guidelines on reporting “very important political events” such as the trial of Bo Xilai, “he added, referring to the disgraced former politician jailed for life for corruption.
“Ma’s business investments are directly associated with some of China’s most powerful political families. The fact that he’s having trouble with the Chinese state this time around probably has some high politics in the background, not just because he gave a speech that may have struck Xi. [Jinping, China’s president] or the courage of another party official, ”Mr. Xiao said.
Xi was involved in the decision to stop Ant’s IPO, according to people familiar with the events. Alibaba shares fell about 30% in the weeks that followed.
“I think Beijing is still afraid of Alibaba to some extent. . . The government thinks it is being challenged, ”a state media worker said.
Unofficial media in China, such as online blogs, continued to speculate on Mr. Ma’s fate, although several were censored.
His empire has come under scrutiny by several ministries since Ant’s reportedly largest IPO in the world was sabotaged by regulators.
In addition to the antitrust investigation into Alibaba, the Chinese central bank plans to remove and directly regulate the consumer credit unit of Ant and other parts of its fintech empire, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The crackdown on Mr. Ma has raised concerns among investors and entrepreneurs, as the policy measures go beyond regulation and are more about politics and show the tech billionaire who is the ultimate boss.
In November, the vice president of the state propaganda branch told a Chinese media conference to “resolutely prevent the risk of capital controlling public opinion.”
Alibaba-backed media platform Huxiu had to suspend operations for a month last month after posting an op-ed warning of excessive sanctions against Chinese tech groups.
The editorial claimed that U.S. trade monopolies had helped the country dominate the global market, while Chinese tech companies were not big enough to warrant antitrust investigations.
“When it comes to Chinese companies that are conquering the world, we can not count only on Huawei, but also on Tencent, Alibaba, ByteDance, Baidu, Xiaomi, BYD”, he concluded, referring to some of the major Chinese technology companies.