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.
Alibaba’s billionaire founder resurfaced as he spoke to 100 rural teachers through a video, three months after his last public appearance in October, sending the e-commerce firm’s shares up more than 8% in Hong Kong.
The video was first posted on a news portal backed by the government of Zhejiang, the eastern province where Alibaba is headquartered, and the clip was verified by an Alibaba spokesperson.
Speculations swirled around Ma’s whereabouts after media reported in December that he skipped the taping of a TV program he created. Ma, known for his love for the limelight, has seen his e-commerce empire Alibaba and fintech giant Ant Group increasingly in the crosshairs of the Chinese authorities in recent months.
Ma last appeared publicly at a conference where he castigated China’s financial regulatory system in front of a room of high-ranked officials. His controversial remark, according to reports, prompted the Chinese regulator to abruptly halt Ant’s initial public offering, which would have been the biggest public share sale of all time.
Ant has since been working on corporate restructuring and regulatory compliance under the directions of the government. Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce platform, also came under scrutiny as market regulators opened an investigation into its alleged monopolistic practices.
Some argue that the recent clampdown on Jack Ma’s internet empire signals Beijing’s growing unease with the super-rich and private-sector power brokers.
“Today, Alibaba and its archrival, Tencent, control more personal data and are more intimately involved in everyday life in China than Google, Facebook and other American tech titans are in the United States. And just like their American counterparts, the Chinese giants sometimes bully smaller competitors and kill innovation,” wrote Li Yuan for the New York Times.
“You don’t have to be a member of the Communist Party to see reasons to rein them in.”
In the 50-second video, Ma talked directly into the camera against what appears to be decorative paintings depicting a water town typical of Zhejiang. An art history book is shown amid a stack of books, alongside a vase of fresh flowers and a ceramic figurine of a stout, reclining man, looking relaxed and content.
Ma addressed the 100 teachers receiving the Jack Ma Rural Teachers Award, which was set up by the Jack Ma Foundation to identify outstanding rural teachers every year. The video also briefly shows Ma visiting a rural boarding school in Zhejiang on January 10. The award ceremony was moved online this year due to the pandemic, Ma told the teachers.
When Ma announced his retirement plan, he pledged to return to his teaching roots and devote more time to education philanthropy, though the founder still holds considerable sway over Alibaba. The legendary billionaire began his career as an English teacher in Hangzhou, and on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, he nicknames himself the “ambassador for rural teachers.”
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?'”
Using Xiami was once synonymous with having good music taste in China. The music app, which debuted around 2008 and was acquired by Alibaba in 2013, is discontinuing its streaming service today, Xiami said in a notice to users.
Xiami, which means “smalll shrimp” in Chinese, was once known for its smart discovery, elegant design, social features and support for indie musicians which helped attract a loyal following among China’s artsy, hipster types. The beginning of its decline coincided with the battle for music rights in China. A digital music behemoth was formed in 2016 when Tencent bought a majority stake in China Music Group, which brought to Tencent a reservoir of exclusive music deals. By 2017, Tencent’s music apps controlled as much as 75% of China’s music streaming market.
Xiami, on the other hand, lost large quantities of music rights and consequently users who converted to more resource-rich platforms, albeit grudgingly.
Alibaba did have a shot at online music. In 2015, the e-commerce giant appointed two renowned industry veterans — a songwriter and a music company executive — to steer its newly minted music group. Neither was necessarily seen as having the experience for running an internet music business. Instead of growing Xiami, they poured resources into a platform called Alibaba Planet to build artist-fan relationships. The idea didn’t take off.
In the meantime, newcomers like NetEase Music are holding out in their battle against Tencent’s music empire, of which dominance has endured to this day.
While users will lose access to the app and all their data, Xiami is not totally dead. Its copyrights-focused segment Yin Luo (音螺 or Conch Music) will continue to operate, according to the notice. But the dream of Xiami’s utopian founders, “earn music & money” (hence the app’s original name “EMUMO”), a vision they laid out inside a cafe on a snowy day in Hangzhou, is surely gone.
The world’s attention is on Jack Ma’s whereabouts after reports noted the billionaire founder of Alibaba and Ant Group had been absent from public view since late October.
On October 24, Ma delivered fiery remarks against China’s financial system to an audience of high-ranking officials. Days later the Chinese authorities abruptly halted Ant’s initial public offering, an act believed to be linked to Ma’s controversial speech. The Chinese government subsequently told the fintech behemoth, which had thrived in a relatively lax regulatory environment, to “rectify” its business according to the law. The future of Ant hangs in the air.
Concurrently, Chinese regulators have launched an unprecedented probe into Alibaba over suspected monopolistic behavior.
Ma is known for his outspoken personality and love for the limelight, so it’s no surprise that his missing from recent events, including the final episode of an African TV program he created, is sparking widespread chatter. From economists to journalists, the Twitter world has tuned in:
Chinese billionaire Jack Ma is missing after criticizing the Chinese government. Wow. This would be like the U.S. government kidnapping Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg to teach them a lesson. https://t.co/AREly0Ba7M
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) January 4, 2021
Billionaire Jack Ma (@JackMa) suspected to be missing shortly after criticizing China’s government.
Chinese authorities launched an anti-monopoly investigation into Alibaba in late December and told Ant Group to restructure its operations.
— Anonymous (@YourAnonCentral) January 4, 2021
Where is Chinese billionaire Jack Ma? He has not made any public appearance in 2 months. He criticised Chinese regulators and state-owned banks in Shanghai in October. https://t.co/SyIZZOYMqn
— Smita Prakash (@smitaprakash) January 4, 2021
“Regarding the Africa’s Business Heroes competition, Mr. Ma had to miss the finale due to a schedule conflict,” an Alibaba spokesperson said.
While China’s Twitter equivalent Weibo has not blocked searching for “Jack Ma missing,” the posts it surfaced barely have any likes or reposts. Elsewhere on the Chinese internet, users are speculating inside WeChat groups that Ma was either “made vanished” or has fled the country.
It’s worth noting that Ma has long stepped back from day-to-day operations at Alibaba. In September 2019, he officially handed his helm as the company’s chairman to his successor Daniel Zhang. That said, the billionaire still holds considerable sway over the e-commerce business as a lifetime partner at the so-called Alibaba Partnership, a group comprising senior management ranks who can nominate a majority of the directors to the board.
It’s not unusual to see Chinese tycoons choosing to lie low in tough times. After Richard Liu was accused of rape, the flamboyant founder of JD.com, Alibaba’s archrival, skipped a key political event in China last year. Tencent founder Pony Ma, who already keeps a low profile, has been absent from the public eye for about a year, though the cause is his chronic “back problems,” a source told TechCrunch, and the tech boss has made virtual appearances at events by sending voice messages in the past year.
Chinese authorities investigate an e-commerce giant, Google may be tightening its grip on research and VCs weigh in on the year’s biggest surprises. This is your (briefer than usual) Daily Crunch for December 24, 2020.
The big story: Alibaba faces antitrust probe
China’s State Administration for Market Regulation said that it’s investigating the e-commerce giant over a policy that forces merchants to sell exclusively with Alibaba and skip rival platforms JD.com and Pinduoduo.
“Alibaba will actively cooperate with the regulators on the investigation,” the company said in a statement. “Company business operations remain normal.”
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have already called off the initial public offering of Alibaba affiliate Ant Group, and the company has now received another “meeting notice” from regulators.
Holiday grab bag
Google reportedly tightens grip on research into ‘sensitive topics’ — Reuters, citing researchers at the company and internal documents, reports that Google has implemented new controls in the last year, including an extra round of inspection for papers on certain topics.
Five VCs discuss what surprised them the most in 2020 — The latest episode of Equity reflects on a year that no one could have predicted.
Gift Guide: Last-minute subscriptions to keep the gifts going all year — They’re easy to order at the very last minute, easy to give from afar and they’ll spread the gifting fun out over weeks and months.
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
The built environment will be one of tech’s next big platforms — An in-depth look at Sidewalk Labs’ abandoned Toronto waterfront project.
US seed-stage investing flourished during pandemic — According to a TechCrunch analysis of PitchBook data and a survey of venture capitalists, a few trends became clear.
Use Git data to optimize your developers’ annual reviews — Three metrics can help you understand true performance quality.
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China’s top market watchdog has begun a probe into Alibaba over alleged anti-competition practices at the e-commerce firm, the latest of Beijing’s efforts to curb the country’s ever-expanding internet titans.
The State Administration for Market Regulation said Thursday in a brief statement that it is investigating Alibaba over its “choosing one from two” policy, in which merchants are forced to sell exclusively on Alibaba and skip rivaling platforms JD.com and Pinduoduo.
“Today, Alibaba Group has received notification from the State Administration for Market Regulation that an investigation has been initiated into the Company pursuant to the Anti-Monopoly Law. Alibaba will actively cooperate with the regulators on the investigation,” Alibaba said in a statement.
“Company business operations remain normal.”
Alibaba’s shares tumbled more than 8% on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Thursday.
On the same day, state-backed Xinhua reported that Ant Group, Alibaba’s affiliate, has been summoned by a group of finance authorities to discuss its “compliance” work. Ant, which operates the popular Alipay e-wallet and works as an intermediary for financial services and customers, has pledged to take measures to curb debt risks after Chinese authorities abruptly called off its colossal initial public offering last month.
“Today, Ant Group received a meeting notice from regulators. We will seriously study and strictly comply with all regulatory requirements and commit full efforts to fulfill all related work,” the firm said in a statement.
Some argue that the clampdown is a long time coming for China’s internet giants, which have been allowed to grow under a relatively loose regulatory environment. The Alibaba case is a “significant step” in China’s anti-monopolistic regulations on the internet industry, said an opinion piece published in the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party. Assuaging worries that stricter regulations could deal a blow to the industry, the piece said the probe into Alibaba “is beneficial to restoring orders and promoting long-term, healthy development of the platform economy.”
Like Amazon, China’s e-commerce firms Alibaba and JD.com have been working to conquer the massive healthcare industry. The offerings are wide-ranging, reaching everything from around-the-clock delivery of medicines, sale of consumer health services like plastic surgery, online diagnosis for patients, to digital solutions for hospitals (like appointment-booking) and advertising services for drugmakers.
Alibaba Health began as an investment portfolio of the e-commerce firm and grew into a subsidiary through episodes of consolidations over the years. JD Health, on the other hand, was spun out from JD.com in 2019 and quickly began to attract flows of large investments.
The move into healthcare is part of the behemoths’ goal to be a one-stop-shop for everything. Here are some numbers for gauging how the digital health giants compare with each other:
In terms of revenue sources, both companies rely mostly on the sales of medicines (both over-the-counter and prescription) and other healthcare products like vitamin supplements. Both have a direct-to-consumer drug business, whereby they are more involved in the supply chains, but they also serve as a marketplace for third-party suppliers, in which case they monetize by charging commission fees. They each have a smaller but growing services segment targeting consumers, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.
Alibaba Health – 7 billion yuan or $1.07 billion (six months ended September)
JD Health – 8.8 billion yuan or $1.35 billion (six months ended June)
Alibaba Health posted its first profitable earnings this year, pocketing 278.6 million yuan in the six months ended September, up from a loss of 7.6 million yuan from the same period last year.
In the six months ended June, JD Health incurred a loss of 5.4 billion yuan, compared to a profit of 236.3 million yuan in the same period of 2019. The loss was mainly due to fair value changes after issuing additional convertible preferred shares.
Though Alibaba Health generated less revenue, the platform enjoys a larger user base, thanks to Alibaba’s sprawling ecosystem. In the year ended June, a total of 250 million users made purchases through the online pharmacy of Tmall, Alibaba’s business-to-consumer marketplace. Meanwhile, Alibaba Health’s direct-to-consumer drugstore saw 65 million annual active users.
In comparison, 72.5 million people had at least made one purchase through JD Health’s platform in the past year.
Both companies provide online health consultation services, which saw a surge in demand during the COVID-19 outbreak. Alibaba Health had a network of over 39,000 doctors by September, compared to JD Health’s pool of over 65,000 doctors, both in-house and third-party.
Residents of Shenzhen will see truly driverless cars on the road starting Thursday. AutoX, a four-year-old startup backed by Alibaba, MediaTek and Shanghai Motors, is deploying a fleet of 25 unmanned vehicles in downtown Shenzhen, marking the first time any autonomous driving car in China tests without safety drivers or remote operators on public roads.
The cars, meant as robotaxis, are not yet open to the public, an AutoX spokesperson told TechCrunch.
The milestone came just five months after AutoX landed a permit from California to start driverless tests, following in the footsteps of Waymo and Nuro.
It also indicates that China wants to bring its smart driving industry on par with the U.S. Cities from Shenzhen to Shanghai are competing to attract autonomous driving upstarts by clearing regulatory hurdles, touting subsidies and putting up 5G infrastructure.
As a result, each city ends up with its own poster child in the space: AutoX and Deeproute.ai in Shenzhen, Pony.ai and WeRide in Guangzhou, Momenta in Suzhou, Baidu’s Apollo fleet in Beijing, to name a few. The autonomous driving companies, in turn, work closely with traditional carmakers to make their vehicles smarter and more suitable for future transportation.
“We have obtained support from the local government. Shenzhen is making a lot of rapid progress on legislation for self-driving cars,” said the AutoX representative.
The decision to remove drivers from the front and operators from a remote center appears a bold move in one of China’s most populated cities. AutoX equips its vehicles with its proprietary vehicle control unit called XCU, which it claims has faster processing speed and more computational capability to handle the complex road scenarios in China’s cities.
“[The XCU] provides multiple layers of redundancy to handle this kind of situation,” said AutoX when asked how its vehicles will respond should the machines ever go rogue.
The company also stressed the experience it learned from “millions of miles” driven in China’s densest city centers through its 100 robotaxis in the past few years. Its rivals are also aggressively accumulating mileage to train their self-driving algorithms while banking sizable investments to fund R&D and pilot tests. AutoX itself, for instance, has raised more than $160 million to date.
Nearly all of China’s largest internet firms have established a presence in online grocery. Just this week, news arrived that Alibaba co-led the $196 million C3 funding round of Nice Tuan, the two-year-old grocery group-buying firm’s fourth round year to date.
People in China shop online for almost everything, including groceries. At first, grocery e-commerce appears to have caught on mainly among the digitally-savvy who have grown reliant on the convenience of e-commerce and don’t mind paying a bit more for delivery. Many elderly shoppers, on the other hand, still prefer visiting traditional wet markets where ingredients are generally cheaper.
Now tech companies in China are scrambling to capture grocery shoppers of all ages. A new business model that’s getting a lot of funding is that of Nice Tuan, the so-called community group buying.
In conventional grocery e-commerce, an intermediary platform like Alibaba normally connects individual shoppers to an array of merchants and offers doorstep delivery, which arrives normally within an hour in China.
A community group-buying, in comparison, relies on an army of neighborhood-based managers — often housewives looking for part-time work — to promote products amongst neighbors and tally their orders in group chats, normally through the popular WeChat messenger. The managers then place the group orders with suppliers and have the items delivered to pick-up spots in the community, such as a local convenience store.
It’s not uncommon to see piles of grocery bags at corner stores wating to be fetched these days, and the model has inspired overseas Chinese entrepreneurs to follow suit in America.
Even in China where e-commerce is ubiquitous, the majority of grocery shopping still happens offline. That’s changing quickly. The fledgling area of grocery group-buying is growing at over 100% year-over-year in 2020 and expected to reach 72 billion yuan ($11 billion) in market size, according to research firm iiMedia.
It sounds as if grocery group-buying and self-pickup is a step back in a world where doorstep convenience is the norm. But the model has its appeal. Texting orders in a group chat is in a way more accessible for the elderly, who may find Chinese e-commerce apps, often overlaid with busy buttons and tricky sales rules, unfriendly. With bulk orders, sales managers might get better bargains from suppliers. If a group-buying company is ambitious, it can always add last-mile delivery to its offering.
Chinese tech giants are clearly bullish about online grocery and diversifying their portfolios to make sure they have a skin in the game. Tencent is an investor in Xingsheng Youxuan, Nice Tuan’s major competitor. Food delivery service Meituan has its own grocery arm, offering both the traditional digital grocer as well as the WeChat-based group-buy model. E-commerce upstart Pinduoduo similarly supports grocery group purchases. Alibaba itself already operates the Hema supermarket, which operates both online and offline markets.
There’s no lack of news these days on China’s tech giants teaming up with traditional carmakers. Companies from Alibaba to Huawei are striving to become relevant in the trillion-dollar auto industry, which itself is seeking an electric transition and intelligent upgrade as 5G comes of age.
State-owned automaker SAIC Motor, a major player in China, unveiled this week a new electric vehicle arm called Zhiji, in which Alibaba and a Shanghai government-backed entity are minority shareholders. The tie-up comes as Chinese EV startups like Xpeng and Nio and their predecessor Tesla see their stocks soaring in recent months.
Alibaba’s ties with SAIC can be traced back to 2015 when they jointly announced a $160 million investment in internet-connected cars. The partners moved on to form a joint venture called Banma (or “Zebra”) and Alibaba has since developed a slew of auto solutions for the Banma platform to enable everything from voice-activated navigation to voice ordering coffee, which is, of course, linked to the Alipay e-wallet.
For SAIC’s new EV brand, Alibaba will continue to be its “technology solution provider,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.
The other tech giant making big moves in auto is Huawei. Just this week, the telecoms equipment and smartphone maker announced it would fold its smart car unit into its consumer business group, which previously focused on handsets. The expanded group will continue to be steered by Richard Yu, regarded as the man who helped grow Huawei from an underdog in the mobile industry to a leading global player.
Huawei’s ambition in auto is “not to manufacture cars but to focus on developing ICT [information and communications technology] to assist automakers in producing cars,” the firm asserts in the statement, addressing rumors that it wants to encroach on traditional carmakers’ turf.
Huawei’s phone business has taken a hit since U.S. sanctions hobbled its supply chain. It sold its budget phone brand Honor recently in the hope that the spinoff, independent from Huawei, will be free from trade curbs.
India is not done banning Chinese apps. The world’s second largest internet market, which has banned over 175 apps with links to the neighboring nation in recent months, said on Tuesday it was banning an additional 43 such apps.
Like with the previous orders, India cited cybersecurity concerns to block these apps. “This action was taken based on the inputs regarding these apps for engaging in activities which are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order,” said India’s IT Ministry in a statement.
The ministry said it issued the order to block these apps “based on the comprehensive reports received from Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Center, Ministry of Home Affairs.”
The apps that have been banned include popular short video service Snack Video, which had surged to the top of the chart in recent months, as well as e-commerce app AliExpress, delivery app Lalamove, and shopping app Taobao Live. Full list here. At this point, there doesn’t appear to be any Chinese app left in the top 500 apps used in India.
Tuesday order comes as a handful of apps including PUBG Mobile and TikTok, both of which identified India as their biggest overseas market, are exploring ways to make a return to the country. In recent weeks, PUBG has registered a local entity in India, partnered with Microsoft for computing needs, and publicly vowed to invest $100 million in the country. It is yet to hear from the government, people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.
Tensions between the world’s two most populous nations escalated after more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a military clash in the Himalayas in June. Ever since, “Boycott China” sentiment has trended on social media in India as a growing number of people post videos demonstrating destruction of Chinese-made smartphones, TVs and other products.
In April, India also made a change to its foreign investment policy that requires Chinese investors — who have ploughed billions of dollars into Indian startups in recent years — to take approval from New Delhi before they could write new checks to Indian firms. The move has significantly reduced Chinese investors’ presence in Indian startups’ deal flows in the months since.
If you want to know what the future of finance looks like, head east, where it’s already been laid down in China. Digital payments through mobile phones are ubiquitous, and there is incredible innovation around lending, investments and digital currencies that are at the vanguard of global financial innovation.
Take the cover photo of this article: At Alibaba, facial recognition software identifies customers at the employee cafeteria, while visual AI identifies foods on their tray and calculates a total bill — all pretty much instantly.
Given some of the big news stories emanating out of the sector the past two weeks, I wanted to get a deeper view on what’s happening in China’s fintech market and what that portends for the rest of the world moving forward. So I called up Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who is writing a book on the development of China’s fintech sector to get his take on what’s happening and what it all means.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
TechCrunch: Why don’t we start with the big news from earlier this month about Ant Group and how its world-record shattering IPO was pulled at the last minute by Chinese financial regulators. What was your take and why were so many people trying to pile into the IPO?
Martin Chorzempa: I think there’s been surprise at how much interest there is in the company, and I think that’s just really an indication of the market for fintech in China. It’s certainly the world’s largest market for financial technology, and even though in the payments space things look pretty saturated between Ant and Tencent’s WeChat, there are so many areas that they’re expanding into, like credit and insurance, where there’s still a lot of room to run for these kinds of financial technologies to take over a much larger share of the financial system than they do now.
So even just considering the domestic market, it’s huge and it’s just going to get larger. Then, the big question mark is expanding abroad and whether these companies can become truly global financial technology giants. Today, nobody except Chinese people outside of China uses Alipay or WeChat Pay to pay for anything. So that’s a big unexplored side that I think is going to come into a lot of geopolitical risks.
So on globalization, who do these companies need to globalize? China has 1.3 billion people — isn’t that enough of a market to stay focused on?
Well, I don’t think anything’s ever enough for firms this ambitious. And if you think about it, if you have this really unique experience and data, that has a lot of applicability to other countries. So at the very least, it would be kind of a deadweight loss not to have that technology and experience applied to building out digital financial solutions in other countries.
Prior to the pandemic, Chinese people were going abroad in large numbers. So if you want to keep serving even the domestic market you have to have your payment methods accepted abroad.
Plus, if you want to facilitate and grow with China’s e-commerce businesses and other kinds of international trade, then having networks of merchants abroad and being able to use Alipay, for example, is something that could be really important to future growth. The domestic market is huge, but eventually you do run into diminishing returns if everybody already has your app and they’re already borrowing and investing.
China’s e-commerce behemoths Alibaba and JD.com again claimed to have set records during the world’s largest shopping event, Singles’ Day. The figures can often be gamed to paint a rosy picture of perpetual growth, journalists and analysts have long observed, so they are limited metrics for measuring the firms’ performance or Chinese consumers’ purchasing power in times of COVID-19.
Nonetheless, the heavy workload for express couriers is indisputably real and visible.
Starting the second week of November, I noticed parcels beginning to pile up outside my apartment compound in downtown Shenzhen, awaiting their final doorstep delivery. Courier workers dashed in and out of elevators, hurling boxes of items that shoppers bought at discounts or after being tricked by elaborate sales formula into thinking they got good deals.
Singles’ Day will see 2.97 billion packages delivered across China between November 11-16, the period when merchants begin shipping after a pre-sale period, according to a notice from the State Post Bureau. That marks a 28% increase from the year before and doubles the normal daily volume.
It also means that, on average, every person in China is set to get more than two parcels during the shopping spree. They will also receive plenty of e-commerce waste, from cardboard, to tape, to wrapping bubble. Both JD.com and Alibaba’s Cainiao logistics arm have rolled out programs aiming to make online shopping more sustainable.
While coronavirus infections continue to climb in many countries, China has had few local transmissions for months. As such, the pandemic has had a limited impact on delivery speed during Singles’ Day this year, both JD.com and Alibaba told TechCrunch.
Still, the companies have deployed new rules to ensure safety and speed. JD.com, for instance, claimed that it sanitizes its delivery stations and trucks and requires workers to wear masks and take their temperature on a daily basis, practices that are now standard in the country’s logistics sector. Pre-sale also allowed it to allocate inventory closer to consumers in advance. It said that 93% of the shipment orders fulfilled by its own logistics system were completed in less than 24 hours.
Debates over anti-competitive practices amongst China’s internet firms resurface every year in the lead up to Singles’ Day, a time when online retailers exhaust their resources and deploy sometimes sneaky tactics to attract vendors and shoppers. This year, just a day before the world’s largest shopping festival was scheduled to fall on November 11, China’s market regulator announced a set of draft rules that could rein in the monopolistic behavior of the country’s top internet firms.
Over the years, e-commerce leaders Alibaba, JD.com, Pinduoduo, food delivery platform Meituan, social giant Tencent and other major industry players have been accused of unfair competition to various extent. Behavior targeted by Beijing’s new proposal includes price discrimination among consumers, preferential treatment for merchants who sign exclusive agreements with platforms, and compulsory collection of user data.
Some of China’s largest tech companies saw their shares drop on Tuesday afternoon trading in Hong Kong: Alibaba by 5.1%, JD.com by 8.78%, Meituan by 10.5%, and Tencent by 4.42%.
Meituan, JD.com and Pinduoduo declined to comment on the draft rules. Tencent and Alibaba cannot be immediately reached.
The aim of the regulatory proposal is “to prevent and stop monopolistic practices in internet platforms’ economic activity, to lower compliance costs for law enforcers and business operators, to enhance and improve antitrust regulations on the platform economy, to protect market fairness, to ensure the interests of consumers and society, and to encourage the healthy and continuous development of the platform economy.”
In other words, China wants to restore order in its sprawling internet industry, which has given rise to some of the world’s most valuable companies today. Major laws it weighed in recent years targeting its tech darlings include the e-commerce law passed in 2018 and the data security draft law that was seeking comments earlier this year. Just a few days ago, Beijing abruptly called off Ant Group’s highly anticipated initial public offering, a sign of the authorities’ heightened oversight over the fintech industry.
As Ant Group seizes the world’s attention with its record initial public offering, which was abruptly called off by Beijing, investors and analysts are revisiting Tencent’s fintech interests, recognized as Ant’s archrival in China.
It’s somewhat complicated to do this, not least because they are sprawled across a number of Tencent properties and, unlike Ant, don’t go by a single brand or operational structure — at least, not one that is obvious to the outside world.
However, when you tease out Tencent’s fintech activity across its wider footprint — from direct operations like WeChat Pay through to its sizeable strategic investments and third-party marketplaces — you have something comparable in size to Ant, and in some services even bigger.
Ant refuted the comparison with Tencent or anyone else. In a reply to China’s securities regulator in September, the Jack Ma-controlled, Alibaba-backed fintech giant said it is “not comparable” to WeChat Pay, the fintech tool inside WeChat, Tencent’s flagship messenger.
“In the space of digital payments and merchant service, there are many players around the world, including Tencent’s WeChat Pay. But the payments services offered by these companies are different from our digital payments and merchant services. They are not comparable. In terms of digital finance, our way of working with and serving financial institutions, as well as our revenue model, are novel and do not have a counterpart,” the company noted in a somewhat hubristic reply.
There’s no denying that Ant is a pioneer in expanding financial inclusion in China, where millions remain outside the formal banking system. But Tencent has played catch-up in digital finance and made major headway, especially in electronic payments.
Both companies ventured into fintech by first offering consumers a way to pay digitally, though the brands “Alipay” and “WeChat Pay” fail to reflect the breadth of services touted by the platforms today. Alipay, Ant’s flagship app, is now a comprehensive marketplace selling Ant’s in-house products and myriad third-party ones like micro-loans and insurance. The app, like WeChat Pay, also facilitates a growing list of public services, letting users see their taxes, pay utility bills, book a hospital visit and more.
Screenshots of the Alipay app. Source: iOS App Store
Tencent, on the other hand, embeds its financial services inside the payment features of WeChat (WeChat Pay) and the giant’s other popular chat app, QQ. It has thus been historically difficult to make out how much Tencent earns from fintech, something the giant doesn’t disclose in its earnings reports. This is reflective of Tencent’s “horse racing” internal competition, in which departments and teams often rival fiercely against each other rather than actively collaborate.
Screenshots of WeChat Pay inside Tencent’s WeChat messenger
As such, we have pulled together estimates of Tencent’s fintech businesses ourselves using a mix of quarterly reports and third-party research — a mark of how un-transparent some of this really is — but it begs some interesting questions. Will (should?) Tencent at some point follow in Alibaba’s footsteps to bring its own fintech operations under one umbrella?
The Alipay app recorded 711 monthly active users and 80 million monthly merchants in June. Among its 1 billion annual users, 729 million had transacted in at least one “financial service” through the platform. As in the PayPal-eBay relationship, Alipay benefits tremendously by being the default payments processor for Alibaba marketplaces like Taobao.
As of 2019, more than 800 million users and 50 million merchants used WeChat to pay monthly, a big chunk of the 1.2 billion active user base of the messenger. It’s unclear how many people tried Tencent’s other fintech products, though the firm did say about 200 million people used its wealth management service in 2019.
Ant reported a total of 121 billion yuan or $17 billion in revenue last year, nearly doubling its sum from 2017 and putting it on par with PayPal at $17.8 billion.
In 2019, Tencent generated 101 billion yuan of revenue from its “fintech and business services. The segment mainly consisted of fintech and cloud products, industry analysts told TechCrunch. With its cloud unit finishing the year at 17 billion yuan in revenue, we can venture to estimate that Tencent’s fintech products earned roughly or no more than 84 billion yuan ($12 billion), from the period — paled by Ant’s figure, but not bad for a relative latecomer.
The sheer size of the fintech giants has made them highly attractive targets of regulation. Increasingly, Ant is downplaying its “financial” angle and billing itself as a “technology” ally for traditional institutions rather than a challenger. These days, Alipay relies less on selling proprietary financial products and bills itself as an intermediary helping state banks, wealth managers and insurers to reach customers. In return for facilitating the process, Ant charges administrative fees from transactions on the platform.
Now, let’s turn to the rivals’ four main business focuses: payments, microloans, wealth management and insurance.
Ant vs. Tencent’s fintech businesses. Sources for the figures are companies’ quarterly reports, third-party research and TechCrunch estimates.
In the year ended June, Alipay processed a whopping 118 trillion yuan in payment transactions in China. That’s about $17 trillion and dwarfs the $172 billion that PayPal handled in 2019.
Tencent doesn’t disclose its payments transaction volume, but data from third-party research firms offer a hint of its scale. The industry consensus is that the two collectively control over 90% of China’s trillion-dollar electronic payments market where Alipay enjoys a slight lead.
Alipay processed 55.4% of China’s third-party payments transactions in the first quarter of 2020, according to market research firm iResearch, while another researcher Analysys said the firm’s share was 48.44% in the period. In comparison, Tenpay (the brand assigned to the company-wide infrastructure that powers WeChat Pay and the less-significant QQ Wallet, yet another name to confuse people) trailed behind at 38.8%, per iResearch data, and 34% according to Analysys.
At the end of the day, the two services have distinct user scenarios. The fact that WeChat Pay lies inside a messenger makes it a tool for social, often small, payments, such as splitting bills and exchanging lucky money, a custom in China. Alipay, on the other hand, is associated with online shopping.
That’s changing as Tencent tries to increase its ticket size through alliances. It’s tied WeChat Pay to portfolio e-commerce companies like JD.com, Pinduoduo and Meituan — all Alibaba’s competitors.
Third-party payments were once an incredibly profitable business. Platforms used to be able to hold customer reserve funds from which they generated handsome interests. That lucrative scheme came to a stop when Chinese regulators demanded non-bank payments providers to place 100% of customer deposit funds under a centralized, interest-free account last year. What’s left for payment processors to earn are limited fees charged from merchants.
Payments still account for the bulk of Ant’s revenues — 43%, or a total of 51.9 billion yuan ($7.6 billion) in 2019, but the percentage was down from 55% in 2017, a sign of the giant’s diversifying business.
Ant has become the go-to lender for shoppers and small businesses in a country where millions aren’t qualified for bank-issued credit cards. The firm had worked with about 100 banks, doling out 1.7 trillion yuan ($250 billion) of consumer loans and 400 billion yuan ($58 billion) of small business loans in the year ended June. That amounted to 41.9 billion yuan or 34.7% of Ant’s annual revenue.
The size of Tencent’s loan business is harder to gauge. What we do know is that Weilidai, the microloan product sold through WeChat, had issued an aggregate of 3.7 trillion yuan ($540 billion) to 28 million customers between its launch in 2015 and 2019, according to a report from WeBank, the Tencent-backed private bank that provides the WeChat-based loan.
As of June, Ant had 4.1 trillion yuan ($600 billion) assets under management, making it one of the world’s biggest money-market funds. Working with 170 partner asset managers, the segment brought in about 17 billion yuan or 14% of total revenue in 2019.
Tencent said its wealth management platform accumulated assets of over 600 billion yuan in 2018 and grew by 50% year-over-year in 2019. That should put its AUM in 2019 at around 900 billion yuan ($131 billion).
Last but not least, both giants have made big pushes into consumer insurance. Besides featuring third-party plans, Alipay introduced a new way to insure customers: mutual aid. The novel scheme, which is not regulated as an insurance product in China, is free to sign up and does not charge any premium or upfront payment. Users pay small monthly fees that are pooled to pay for claims of critical illnesses.
Insurance premiums and mutual aid contributions on Ant’s platform reached 52 billion yuan, or $7.6 billion, in the year ended June. Working with about 90 partner insurers in China, the segment contributed nearly 9 billion yuan, or 7.4%, of the firm’s annual revenue. More than 570 million Alipay users participated in at least one insurance program in the year ended June.
Tencent, on the other hand, taps partners in its relatively uncharted territory. Its insurance strategy includes in-house platform WeSure that works like a middleman between insurers and consumers, and Tencent-backed Waterdrop, which provides both traditional insurances and a rival to Ant’s mutual aid product Xianghubao.
In the first half of 2020, WeSure, Tencent’s main insurance operation that sells through WeChat, paid out a total of 290 million yuan ($42.4 million), it announced. The unit does not disclose its amount of premiums or revenues, but we can find clues in other figures. Twenty-five million people used WeShare services in 2019 and the average premium amount per user was over 1,000 yuan ($151). That is, WeShare generated no more than 25 billion yuan, or $3.78 billion, in premium that year because the user figure also accounts for a good number of premium-free users.
Moving forward, it remains unclear whether Tencent will restructure its fintech operations in a more cohesive and collaborative way. As they expand, will investors and regulators demand that? And what opportunities are there for others to compete in a space dominated by two huge players?
One thing is for sure: Tencent will need to tread more carefully on regulatory issues. Ant’s achievement is a win for entrepreneurs looking to “disrupt” China’s financial sector, but its halted IPO, which is tied to regulatory issues and reportedly Jack Ma’s hubris, also sounds an alarm to contenders that policymaking in China can be capricious.
European lawmakers are pressing major e-commerce and media platforms to share more data with each other as a tool to fight rogue traders who are targeting consumers with coronavirus scams.
After the pandemic spread to the West, internet platforms were flooded with local ads for PPE of unknown and/or dubious quality and other dubious coronavirus offers — even after some of the firms banned such advertising.
The concern here is not only consumers being ripped off but the real risk of harm if people buy a product that does not offer the protection claimed against exposure to the virus or even get sold a bogus coronavirus “cure” when none in fact exists.
In a statement today, Didier Reynders, the EU commissioner for justice, said: “We know from our earlier experience that fraudsters see this pandemic as an opportunity to trick European consumers. We also know that working with the major online platforms is vital to protect consumers from their illegal practices. Today I encouraged the platforms to join forces and engage in a peer-to-peer exchange to further strengthen their response. We need to be even more agile during the second wave currently hitting Europe.”
The Commission said Reynders met with 11 online platforms today — including Amazon, Alibaba/AliExpress, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft/Bing, Rakuten and (TechCrunch’s parent entity) Verizon Media/Yahoo — to discuss new trends and business practices linked to the pandemic and push the tech companies to do more to head off a new wave of COVID-19 scams.
In March this year EU Member States’ consumer protection authorities adopted a common position on the issue. The Commission and a pan-EU network of consumer protection enforcers has been in regular contact with the 11 platforms since then to push for a coordinated response to the threat posed by coronavirus scams.
The Commission claims the action has resulted in the platforms reporting the removal of “hundreds of millions” of illegal offers and ads. It also says they have confirmed what it describes as “a steady decline” in new coronavirus-related listings, without offering more detailed data.
In Europe, tighter regulations over what e-commerce platforms sell are coming down the pipe.
Next month regional lawmakers are set to unveil a package of legislation that will propose updates to existing e-commerce rules and aim to increase their legal responsibilities, including around illegal content and dangerous products.
In a speech last week, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager, who heads up the bloc’s digital policy, said the Digital Services Act (DSA) will require platforms to take more responsibility for dealing with illegal content and dangerous products, including by standardizing processes for reporting illegal content and dealing with reports and complaints related to content.
A second legislative package that’s also due next month — the Digital Markets Act — will introduce additional rules for a sub-set of platforms considered to hold a dominant market position. This could include requirements that they make data available to rivals, with the aim of fostering competition in digital markets.
MEPs have also pushed for a “know your business customer” principle to be included in the DSA.
Simultaneously, the Commission has been pressing for social media platforms to open up about what it described in June as a coronavirus “infodemic” — in a bid to crack down on COVID-19-related disinformation.
Today the Commission gave an update on actions taken in the month of September by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and TikTok to combat coronavirus disinformation — publishing its third set of monitoring reports. Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market, said more needs to be done there too.
“Viral spreading of disinformation related to the pandemic puts our citizens’ health and safety at risk. We need even stronger collaboration with online platforms in the coming weeks to fight disinformation effectively,” he said in a statement.
The platforms are signatories of the EU’s (non-legally binding) Code of Practice on disinformation.
Legally binding transparency rules for platforms on tackling content such as illegal hate speech look set to be part of the DSA package. Though it remains to be seen how the fuzzier issue of “harmful content” (such as disinformation attached to a public health crisis) will be tackled.
A European Democracy Action Plan to address the disinformation issue is also slated before the end of the year.
In a pointed remark accompanying the Commission’s latest monitoring reports today, Vera Jourová, VP for values and transparency, said: “Platforms must step up their efforts to become more transparent and accountable. We need a better framework to help them do the right thing.”