China’s fast-moving campaign to curb the power of internet giants has hit its latest mark: Ant Group, the fintech sister company of the e-commerce behemoth Alibaba.
Ant announced on Monday that it would undertake a sweeping, government-ordered overhaul of its business to allay regulators’ concerns about the way it competes with rivals, its large-scale collection of user data and the risks its business may pose to the wider financial system.
Beijing has made the corporate empire of Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire co-founder and Ant’s controlling shareholder, an early major target as it dials up its scrutiny of Big Tech. Chinese officials forced Ant to call off its blockbuster initial public offering last November, mere days before its shares had been expected to debut. On Saturday, China’s antitrust authority fined Alibaba $2.8 billion for abusing its dominance in digital retail — a record penalty for violations of the country’s antimonopoly law.
Ant’s flagship Alipay app has become an indispensable tool for more than 700 million monthly users in China, helping them pay for lunch, stash away savings and shop on credit. But Alipay’s size and influence put Ant at the center of a swirl of concerns for Beijing, including the power of leviathan web platforms, the role of internet technology in finance and the influence of moguls like Mr. Ma when China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is seeking greater state control over the economy.
As part of what both Ant and Chinese officials called a “rectification plan,” the company said on Monday that it would apply to become a financial holding company, which would bring closer supervision and requirements that it hold on to more money that it might otherwise lend or put to profitable use.
Ant said it would also “return to its payment origins.” Alipay started out nearly two decades ago as a payment service for Alibaba’s shopping platforms. But as Ant has come to offer other financial services within Alipay, the app has become a major vehicle in China for consumer credit and small-business loans.
The company also said it would strengthen security protections for the personal information it collected to prevent abuse.
“Under the guidance of financial regulators, Ant Group will spare no effort in implementing the rectification plan,” the company said in a statement. “Using the rectification as an opportunity, Ant Group will reinforce our commitment to serve consumers, small businesses and the real economy.”
Ant has tangled with Chinese regulators for years as its operations have grown. Officials restricted the company’s expansion in certain areas and beefed up supervision. The fact that Ant could even prepare for an I.P.O. last year was taken, at the time, as a sign of a détente.
Now, the authorities’ more forceful hand in the company’s future could dampen Ant’s appeal to investors if it tried to go public again.
Andrew Collier, the founder and managing director of Orient Capital Research, said the new regulatory framework for Ant could prove more damaging to its bottom line than the antitrust fine would be to Alibaba’s.
Much will depend, Mr. Collier said, on how the restructuring plan is put in place. “The devil is in the details,” he said.
China has only recently joined the United States and European Union in looking for ways to rein in internet giants. Regulators in all three places now share roughly similar concerns about unfair competition, the collection and storage of data, and tech companies’ influence over large segments of national economies.
Ant and other companies, including Tencent, operator of the popular WeChat messaging app and payment platform, have helped bring China to the global forefront of digital finance. But they have also weakened the influence that government-owned banks and other institutions long enjoyed in shaping capital flows.
Mr. Ma, China’s most famous tycoon, saw Alipay’s growth in precisely those terms. And he was not shy about saying as much. He railed for years against big Chinese banks for not lending enough to small businesses. His championing of small enterprises and ordinary consumers is what gave Ant its name.
But when Mr. Ma spoke out once again in October about the backwardness of Chinese financial regulators — this time, as Ant was in the final stages of readying its mega I.P.O. — he appeared to have pushed the government’s willingness to be criticized too far.
“There is no risk-free innovation in this world,” he said, accusing the authorities of being overly focused on containing risk. He said big banks had a “pawnshop mentality,” lending only to those who could put up collateral and failing to modernize using technology.
Not long after, Ant’s share listings were suspended. In December, regulators ordered the company to correct what they called a litany of failings in its business.
The revamp was unveiled on Monday, soon after financial regulators met with Ant representatives, according to a statement from the country’s central bank.
At the meeting, the regulators told Ant to more clearly separate its credit products from its payment tools, the statement said. They demanded that Ant reduce the size of Yu’ebao, the company’s easy-to-use saving service, which was so popular that at one point it dwarfed all other similar funds anywhere on the planet. The officials also ordered Ant to better ensure that the investment funds it offered to users would not easily run out of cash.
Beijing had been telegraphing aspects of Ant’s restructuring for months. Chinese officials first said in September that companies owning two or more financial businesses would have to register as financial holding companies and be subject to increased government oversight. In a news briefing at the time, a central bank official named Ant as one of several companies that were likely to have to restructure under the new rules.
The aim, officials said, was to better monitor systemic risks that had arisen as more nonfinancial companies had “blindly” entered the financial industry.
As Ant accepted its overhaul on Monday, China carefully coordinated its message to stress that the government still supported the growth of large internet platforms.
In a commentary that was published shortly after the central bank issued its statement on Ant, Economic Daily, a state-run newspaper, said that “only with standardized development will there be a brighter future for the platform economy.”
Technology “cannot become an excuse for platform companies to go beyond legal, ethical and other bottom lines,” the article said. “Financial technology has not changed the riskiness of finance; at bottom, it is still finance. Financial business must be licensed to operate, and financial activity must be completely brought under financial regulation.”
In an interview that was published by The Paper, a government-controlled news site, Ant’s chief executive, Eric Jing, praised Chinese regulators’ “scientific and pragmatic spirit.”
After the revamp, Mr. Jing said, Ant will be even more firmly committed to serving small enterprises and the cause of technological innovation.
www.nytimes.com 2021-04-12 18:22:16