In recent months, Chinese antitrust authorities have ramped up their regulatory efforts to control the growing influence of its big tech sector. Earlier this month, the authorities hit tech giant Alibaba with a record fine of USD 2.8 billion for the firm’s “choose one from two” practice. The dynamism and idiosyncratic nature of China’s antitrust campaign have made it the subject of headlines across the globe. Dr. Angela Zhang, Director of the Center for Chinese Law, has been interviewed and quoted by numerous media outlets on the subject.  And her timely new book ‘Chinese Antitrust Exceptionalism’ released last month is capturing global media attention. 

Dr Angela Zhang’s New Book on Chinese Antitrust Featured in Major Media Outlets

In an interview with the New York Times, Zhang predicted that Alibaba would likely be much more cautious about doing anything that resembles strong-arming users or rivals.  As she explained,

“‘Their competitors will be first to run to the regulator to complain if there are problems.’  Even so, Professor Zhang said, the fact that Beijing did not demand major additional concessions from Alibaba makes the antitrust authority’s decision ‘good news for the firm’ over all”. She predicted that the “‘the market should react positively,’” though she cautioned that the government could always pursue investigations into other aspects of Alibaba’s business.”

In her interview with Bloomberg, Dr. Zhang explained the logic behind the imposition of high fines from the standpoint of the regulators:

“The high fine puts the regulator in the media spotlight and sends a strong signal to the tech sector that such types of exclusionary conduct will no longer be tolerated,” further explaining that “It’s a stone that kills two birds.”

In another interview with Bloomberg, Dr. Zhang explained that the fine is vastly dwarfed by the market sanction inflicted upon Alibaba through the antitrust authority’s strategic announcement of the investigation:  

“Zhang described Alibaba as a “very Chinese” case in which the important thing for the government wasn’t the financial penalty but securing the company’s display of cooperation and obedience. Far more significant than the $2.8 billion fine was the more than $200 billion drop in Alibaba’s market value between its October peak (before the pulling of the Ant IPO) and the end of December — a loss that the company is still far from making up, even after this week’s post-settlement rebound.”

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As Dr. Zhang further explained in an interview with Financial Times:

 

“This is a very dynamic process. Because of the power imbalances between the Chinese government and businesses, these businesses are more likely to bow to the government’s demand in China. This explains their high level of co-operation, or even pre-emptive co-operation…Chinese tech firms have been incredibly adapted to China’s unique political and economic governance”.

Soon after, several tech giants including ByteDance, Pinduoduo, JD.com, and Baidu publicly pledged their commitment to complying with China’s anti-monopoly law. Dr. Zhang, who was asked by the Wall Street Journal to comment on this move, saw this as a coded message to all Chinese big tech companies:

“The Chinese regulator is simultaneously making both a promise and a threat here…If firms cooperate, there won’t be another investigation. If they don’t, they could be subject to severe penalty for past exclusionary practices.”

When asked to comment on the significance of the Alibaba case, Professor Zhang told the BBC:

“In Chinese there is a phrase, killing the chicken to scare the monkeys…Alibaba will be used as an example, as a lesson for other tech firms to learn from.”

Dr Zhang was recently featured in a special Bloomberg documentary "Redlines: China & Big Tech" along with other distinguished guests:

To learn more about Dr. Zhang’s book, please visit: Chinese Antitrust Exceptionalism | Angela Zhang

References:

  1. The New York Times, China Fines Alibaba $2.8 Billion in Landmark Antitrust Case, April 9, 2021 (Link)

  2. Bloomberg, China Fines Alibaba Record $2.8 Billion After Monopoly Probe, April 10,  2021 (Link)

  3. Bloomberg Opinion, It's Easy to Make Tech Titans Kneel. Just Ask China, April 15, 2021 (Link)

  4. Financial Times, Alibaba’s rivals on alert after China’s regulators hand out record fine, April 11, 2021 (Link)

  5. The Wall Street Journal, China’s Tech Giants Vow, in Unison, to Play by Regulator’s Rules, April 14, 2021 (Link)

  6. BBC, Is Alibaba's fate a warning to China’s tech giants? April 15, 2021 (Link)