Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates.
In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its interent economy. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said it had launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba, weeks after the authorities called off the initial public offering of Ant Group, the financial affiliate of Alibaba.
SAMR, the country’s top market regulator, said on Saturday it had determined that Alibaba had been “abusing market dominance” since 2015 by forcing its Chinese merchants to sell exclusively on one e-commerce platform instead of letting them choose freely among different services, such as Pinduoduo and JD.com. Vendors are often pressured to side with Alibaba to take advantage of its enormous user base.
Since late 2020, a clutch of internet giants including Tencent and Alibaba have been hit with various fines for violating anti-competition practices, for instance, failing to clear past acquisitions with regulators. The meager sums of these penalties were symbolic at best compared to the benefits the tech firms reap from their market concentration. No companies have been told to break up their empires and users still have to hop between different super-apps that block each other off.
In recent weeks, however, there are signs that China’s antitrust authorities are getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.
“Today, we received the Administrative Penalty Decision issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation of the People’s Republic of China,” Alibaba said in a statement. “We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. To serve our responsibility to society, we will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen our compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”
The thick walls that tech companies build against each other are starting to break down, too. Alibaba has submitted an application to have its shopping deals app run on WeChat’s mini program platform, Wang Hai, an Alibaba executive, recently confirmed.
For years, Alibaba services have been absent from Tencent’s sprawling lite app ecosystem, which now features millions of third-party services. Vice versa, WeChat is notably missing from Alibaba’s online marketplaces as a payment method. If approved, the WeChat-powered Alibaba mini app would break with precedent of the pair’s long stand-off.
Competition in China’s gaming industry is getting stiffer in recent times as tech giants sniff out potential buyouts and investments to beef up their gaming alliance, whether it pertains to content or distribution.
Bilibili, the go-to video streaming platform for young Chinese, is the latest to make a major gaming deal. It has agreed to invest HK$960 million (about $123 million) into X.D. Network, which runs the popular game distribution platform TapTap in China, the company announced on Thursday.
Dual-listed in Hong Kong and New York, Bilibili will purchase 22,660,000 shares of X.D.’s common stock at HK$42.38 apiece, which will grant it a 4.72% stake.
The partners will initiate a series of “deep collaborations” around X.D.’s own games and TapTap, without offering more detail.
Though known for its trove of video content produced by amateur and professional creators, Bilibili derives a big chunk of its income from mobile games, which accounted for 40% of its revenues in 2020. The ratio had declined from 71% and 53% in 2018 and 2019, a sign that it’s trying to diversify revenue streams beyond distributing games.
Tencent has similarly leaned on games to drive revenues for years. The WeChat operator dominates China’s gaming market through original titles and a sprawling investment portfolio whose content it helps operate and promote.
X.D. makes games, too, but in recent years it has also emerged as a rebel against traditional game distributors, which are Android app stores operated by smartphone makers. The vision is to skip the high commission fees charged by the likes of Huawei and Xiaomi and monetize through ads. X.D.’s proposition has helped it attract a swathe of gaming companies to be its investors, including fast-growing studios Lilith Games and miHoYo, as well as ByteDance, which built up a 3,000-people strong gaming team within six years.
Bilibili’s investment further strengthens X.D.’s matrix of top-tier gaming investors. Tencent is conspicuously absent, but it’s no secret that ByteDance is its new nemesis. The TikTok parent recently outbid Tencent to acquire Moonton, a gaming studio that has gained ground in Southeast Asia, according to Reuters. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is also vying for user attention away from content published on WeChat.
Starting May 1, apps in China can no longer force users into providing excessive personal data, according to a document jointly released by a group of the country’s top regulators, the Cyberspace Administration, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Public Security and the State Administration for Market Regulation.
It’s a common practice in China where apps ask users to provide sensitive personal information and those who decline to share are often denied access. While some of the requests are justifiable, such as one’s location information to use a navigation map, many others are unnecessary, such as one’s biometrics to make mobile payments.
In December, Chinese authorities lay out the acceptable range of data that 39 common app types are entitled to collect, as TechCrunch reported.
All forms of apps are subject to the requirements, including the increasingly popular “mini programs,” which are lite apps accessed through an all-encompassing native app such as WeChat and Alipay without the need for an app store install, said the new document.
“Extraneous data is most often used for advertising purposes, such as serving up localized ads or ads based on the user’s interests,” said Todd Kuhns, marketing manager at AppInChina, a firm that helps overseas apps distribute in China. “Developers could still request this additional info, but users who refuse will probably still get ads and offers — just less relevant ones.”
For now, the document appears to be a guideline at best as it does not specify how the rules should be enforced and how offenders will be punished. While it marks China’s incremental progress on data protection, regulators will have to keep updating the rules as people’s daily lives are becoming more linked to digital devices at a rapid rate.
In recent months, China has been clamping down on the technological darlings that it used to pride itself on. It introduced a sweeping antitrust law to rein in its “platform economy” and slammed anti-competition fines on Alibaba and Tencent, following Ant Group’s IPO fiasco.
A string of recent events in China’s payments industry suggests the duopoly comprising Ant Group and Tencent may be getting a shakeup.
Following the abrupt call-off of Ant’s public sale and a government directive to reform the firm’s business, the Chinese authorities sent another message this week signaling its plan to curb concentration in the flourishing digital payments industry.
The set of draft rules, designed to regulate non-bank payments and released by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) this week, said any non-bank payments processor with over one-third of the non-bank payments market or two companies with a combined half of the market could be subject to regulatory warnings from the anti-monopoly authority under the State Council.
Meanwhile, a single non-bank payments provider with over one half of the digital payments market or two companies with a combined two-thirds of the market could be investigated for whether they constitute a monopoly.
The difference between the two rules is nuanced here, with the second stipulation focusing on digital payments as opposed to non-bank payments in the first.
Furthermore, the rules did not specify how authorities measure an organization’s market share, say, whether the judgment is based on an entity’s total transaction value, its transaction volume, or other metrics.
Alipay processed over half of China’s third-party payments transactions in the first quarter of 2020, according to market researcher iResearch, while Tencent handled nearly 40% of the payments in the same period.
As China heightens scrutiny over its payments giants, it’s also opening up the financial market to international players. In December, Goldman Sachs moved to take full ownership of its Chinese joint venture. This month, PayPal became the first foreign company with 100% control of a payments business in China after it bought out the remaining stake in its local payments partner Guofubao.
Industry experts told TechCrunch that PayPal won’t likely go after the domestic payments giants but may instead explore opportunities in cross-border payments, a market with established players like XTransfer, which was founded by a team of Ant veterans.
Ant and Tencent also face competition from other Chinese internet firms. Companies ranging from food delivery platform Meituan, e-commerce platforms Pinduoduo and JD.com, to TikTok’s parent firm ByteDance have introduced their own e-wallets, though none of them have posed an imminent threat to Alipay or WeChat Pay.
The comprehensive proposal from PBOC also defines how payments processors handle customer data. Non-bank payments services are to store certain user information and transaction history and cooperate with relevant authorities on data checks. Companies are also required to obtain user consent and make clear to customers how their data are collected and used, a rule that reflects China’s broader effort to clamp down on unscrupulous data collection.
WeChat continues to advance its shopping ambitions as the social networking app turns 10 years old. The Chinese messenger facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs,” third-party services that run on the super app that allow users to buy clothes, order food, hail taxis and more.
That is double the value of transactions on WeChat’s mini programs in 2019, the networking giant announced at its annual conference for business partners and ecosystem developers, which normally takes place in its home city of Guangzhou in southern China but was moved online this year due to the pandemic.
To compare, e-commerce upstart Pinduoduo, Alibaba’s archrival, saw total transactions of $214.7 billion in the third quarter.
WeChat introduced mini programs in early 2017 in a move some saw as a challenge to Apple’s App Store and has over time shaped the messenger into an online infrastructure that keeps people’s life running. It hasn’t recently disclosed how many third-party lite apps it houses, but by 2018 the number reached one million, half the size of the App Store at the time.
From Tencent’s strategic perspective, the growth in mini program-based transactions helps further the company’s goal to strengthen its fintech business, which counts digital payments as a major revenue driver.
A big proportion of WeChat’s mini programs are games, which the app said exceeded 500 million monthly users thanks to a boost in female and middle-aged users, as well as players residing in China’s Tier 3 cities, WeChat said.
The virtual conference also unveiled a set of other milestones from China’s biggest messaging app, which surpassed 1.2 billion monthly active users last year.
Among its monthly users, 500 million have tried the WeChat Search function. The Chinese internet is carved into several walled gardens controlled by titans like Tencent, Alibaba and ByteDance, which often block competitors from their services. When users search on WeChat, they are in effect retrieving information published on the messenger as well as Tencent’s allies like Sogou, Pinduoduo and Zhihu, rather than the open web.
WeChat said 240 million people have used its “payments score.” When the feature debuted back in 2019, there was speculation that it signaled WeChat’s entry into consumer credit finance and participation in the government’s social credit system. WeChat reiterated at this year’s event that the WeChat score does neither of that.
Like Ant’s Sesame Score, the rating system works more like a royalty program, “designed to build trust between merchants and users.” For instance, people who reach a certain score can waive deposits or delay payments when using merchant services on WeChat. The score, WeChat said, helped users save more than $30 billion in deposits a year.
WeChat’s enterprise version has surpassed 130 million active users. Its biggest rival, Dingtalk, operated by Alibaba, reached 155 million daily active users last March.
The one-day event concluded with the much-anticipated appearance of Allen Zhang, WeChat’s creator. Zhang went to great lengths to talk about WeChat’s nascent short-video feature, which is somewhat similar to Snap’s Stories. He didn’t disclose the number of users on short videos because “the PR team doesn’t allow” him to, but said that “if we set a goal for ourselves, we will have to achieve it.”
Zhang also announced the WeChat team is weighing up an input tool for users. It’d be a tiny project given Tencent’s colossal size, but the project reflects Zhang’s belief in “privacy protection,” despite public skepticism about how WeChat handles user data.
“If we analyze users’ chat history, we can bring great advertising revenue to the company. But we don’t do that, so WeChat cares a lot about user privacy,” asserted Zhang.
“But why do you still get ads [related to] what you have just said on WeChat? There are many other channels that process your information, not just WeChat. From there, our technical team said, ‘Why don’t we create an input tool ourselves?'”
As fears over WhatsApp’s privacy policies send millions of users in the West to Signal and Telegram, the two encrypted apps are also seeing a slight user uptick in China, where WeChat has long dominated and the government has a tight grip on online communication.
Following WhatsApp’s pop-up notification reminding users that it shares their data with its parent Facebook, people began fleeing to alternate encrypted platforms. Telegram added 25 million just between January 10-13, the company said on its official Telegram channel, while Signal surged to the top of the App Store and Google Play Store in dozens of countries, TechCrunch learned earlier.
The migration was accelerated when, on January 7, Elon Musk urged his 40 million Twitter followers to install Signal in a tweet that likely stoked more interest in the end-to-end encryption messenger.
The growth of Telegram and Signal in China isn’t nearly as remarkable as their soaring popularity in regions where WhatsApp has been the mainstream chat app, but the uplift is a reminder that WeChat alternatives still exist in China in various capacities.
Signal amassed 9,000 new downloads from the China App Store between January 8 and 12, up 500% from the period between January 3 and 7, according to data from research firm Sensor Tower. Telegram added 17,000 downloads during January 8-12, up 6% from the January 3-7 duration. WhatsApp’s growth stalled, recording 10,000 downloads in both periods.
Sensor Tower estimates that Telegram has seen about 2.7 million total installs on China’s App Store, compared to 458,000 downloads from Signal and 9.5 million times from WhatsApp.
The fact that Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp are accessible in China might come as a surprise to some people. But China’s censorship decisions can be arbitrary and inconsistent. As censorship monitoring site Apple Censorship shows, all major Western messengers are still available on the China App Store.
The situation for Android is trickier. Google services are largely blocked in China and Android users revert to Android app stores operated by local companies like Tencent and Baidu. Neither Telegram nor Signal is available on these third-party Android stores, but users with a tool that can bypass China’s Great Firewall, such as a virtual private network (VPN), can access Google Play and install the encrypted messengers.
The next challenge is actually using these apps. The major chat apps all get slightly different treatment from Beijing’s censorship apparatus. Some, like Signal, work perfectly without the need for a VPN. The catch is to sign up for Signal, a user must activate their account with a phone number, and Chinese phone numbers are tied to people’s real identities. Users have reported that WhatsApp occasionally works in China without a VPN, though it loads very slowly. And Facebook doesn’t work at all without a VPN.
“Some websites and apps can remain untouched until they reach a certain threshold of users at which point the authorities will try to block or disrupt the website or app,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of Great Fire, an organization monitoring the Chinese internet that also runs Apple Censorship.
“Perhaps before this mass migration from WhatsApp, Signal did not have that many users in China. That might have changed over the last week in which case the authorities could be pondering restrictions for Signal,” Smith added.
To legally operate in China, companies must store their data within China and submit information to the authorities for security spot-checks, according to a cybersecurity law enacted in 2017. Apple, for instance, partners with a local cloud provider to store the data of its Chinese users.
The requirement raises questions about the type of interaction that Signal, Telegram and other foreign apps have with the Chinese authorities. Signal said it never turned over data to the Hong Kong police and had no data to turn over when concerns grew over Beijing’s heightened controls over the former British colony.
The biggest challenges for apps like Signal in China, according to Smith, will come from Apple, which is constantly under fire by investors and activists for submitting to the Chinese authorities.
In recent years, the American giant has stepped up app crackdown in China, zeroing in on services that grant Chinese users access to unfiltered information, such as VPN providers, RSS feed readers and podcast apps. Apple has also purged tens of thousands of unlicensed games in recent quarters after a years-long delay.
“Apple has a history of preemptively censoring apps that they believe the authorities would want censored,” Smith observed. “If Apple decides to remove Signal in China, either on its own initiative or in direct response to a request from the authorities, then Apple customers in China will be left with no secure messaging options.”