China denies mulling near-$1 bn fine for Alibaba in monopoly case

Beijing, March 12 (AFP/APP): China denied on Friday it was planning to hit e-commerce giant Alibaba with a fine of almost $1 billion for allegedly flouting monopoly rules, as authorities put the screws on the firm as part of a crackdown on the technology sector.

Officials are considering a hefty penalty that could top the $975 million paid by US chipmaker Qualcomm in 2015 — the biggest known for anticompetitive practices in China — the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing unnamed “people with knowledge of the matter”.

But the regulator in charge of the case told AFP there was no truth to the story. “If it’s not there (on our website), it’s not (true),” a spokeswoman for the State Administration for Market Regulation said.

Alibaba, China’s largest online shopping portal, has been in the crosshairs of authorities in recent months over concerns of its reach into the daily finances of ordinary Chinese people. Its legal troubles began after comments in October by billionaire founder Jack Ma in which he laid into China’s convoluted regulatory system.

In November, financial regulators pulled the plug on the record $35 billion Hong Kong-Shanghai initial public offering of Alibaba’s online payment subsidiary Ant Group. A month later, officials opened an investigation into Alibaba’s business practices, deemed anti-competitive, and Ma disappeared from public view until mid-January.

The company based in the eastern city of Hangzhou said it was “fully cooperating” with the investigation by the State Administration for Market Regulation last month. Regulators are also investigating whether the conglomerate should divest assets unrelated to its main online retail business, the Journal reported without offering details.

An Alibaba spokesperson declined to comment on the report when contacted by AFP. The company has come under fire in the past for allegedly forbidding its merchants from listing on rival e-commerce platforms. Once finalised, measures against Alibaba will need to be approved by China’s top leadership.

The squeeze on one of China’s most influential companies is the latest sign that the leadership is ready to deflate the ambitions of big tech firms in a runaway internet sector. In a speech last week Premier Li Keqiang warned big businesses that the government would “strengthen anti-monopoly laws and prevent the disorderly expansion of capital, and resolutely maintain a fair competitive market environment”.

Regulators have already told Ant Group to change its business model and hack back its lending, insurance and wealth management services. They were considering a softer treatment for Alibaba, provided the company distances itself from its outspoken founder, the Journal said, citing unnamed officials.

Ma — one of Asia’s richest people with a fortune estimated around $58 billion — was dropped from a list of business tycoons published by state media last month. Alibaba saw profits jump 52 percent to $12.2 billion over the last three months of 2020, despite the official crackdown.

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