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China tech stocks fall as regulators step up antitrust pressure

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Chinese stocks sold off for a second day as regulators pledged further antitrust action against the country’s financial technology sector on the heels of new rules to curb the monopoly power of its tech giants.

The tech-heavy ChiNext index in Shenzhen fell 1.3 per cent and Shanghai’s Star 50 index dropped 1.1 per cent after a top official with the China Insurance and Banking Regulatory Commission had promised to step up antitrust scrutiny of fintech companies.

The sell-off for Chinese tech stocks extended to Hong Kong, where Alibaba dropped 6.8 per cent, taking it more than 11 per cent lower over the last two sessions and carving $100bn off the company’s market capitalisation. Rivals Tencent and JD.com shed 3.5 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively, while food delivery group Meituan fell 1.6 per cent.

The antitrust attention to tech companies come as they exert an increasingly comprehensive influence on daily life in China, where a fifth of the country’s consumer goods are now sold on Alibaba.

Last week, Chinese regulators halted the $37bn initial public offering of Ant Group, Alibaba’s payments and lending arm, after publishing new draft rules for online borrowing. Last month, Beijing released its first draft of a comprehensive law on personal data protection.


$100bn


The amount Alibaba has lost from its market capitalisation over the past two sessions

The latest comments from Liang Tao, vice-chair of the CBIRC, reported by Bloomberg on Wednesday, added to downward pressure on stocks this week from China’s market regulator.

On Tuesday, the State Administration for Market Regulation published new rules targeting behaviours including the use of exclusivity clauses to hinder competition, treating customers differently based on their spending data and forcing them to buy bundles of products to access those they want.

“Looking at the proposed guidelines, we believe if some of these were to be passed and implemented, it could affect the development of the industry,” said Alicia Yap, managing director and head of pan-Asia internet research at Citi.

Ms Yap said that the rules could limit targeted ads and product recommendations used by almost all ecommerce platforms, while rules on “forced exclusivity” could hit Meituan, which has in the past required restaurants not to list on competing platforms.

But traders in Shanghai were sceptical the new rules meant doomsday for China’s most successful companies.

“This is just a way of [Beijing] saying, [to] all the big companies: ‘You have to play ball by our rules even if you are a giant like Ant Group — you all need to fall in line with directions from the authorities’,” said a trader at one Chinese brokerage.

Technology companies across the globe have faced regulatory pressure this week. In Europe, Amazon faced formal charges for allegedly breaching antitrust rules in its treatment of merchants on its platform.

Positive data from a new Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech has also delivered a blow to tech stocks, which had benefited from the homeworking economy fostered by the pandemic.

The vaccine trial news sent the tech-heavy Nasdaq down another 1.4 per cent on Wall Street on Tuesday, while the broader S&P 500 shed just 0.1 per cent. In Asia on Wednesday Japan’s Topix rose 1.3 per cent while Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 rose 1.6 per cent.



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Emerging Markets

Regulators close ranks on crypto

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This article is an on-site version of our #techFT newsletter. Sign up here to get the complete newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday

Regulators are continuing to step up their scrutiny of cryptocurrencies, with central banks and South Korea’s tax authorities demonstrating fresh concerns.

In a report published on Wednesday, the Bank for International Settlements, the global body for central banks, argues that digital tokens such as bitcoin have few redeeming features and “work against the public good”. It also dismissed stablecoins — a link between crypto and conventional assets — as an “appendage” to traditional money.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BIS did endorse the development of digital currencies backed by central banks, saying they could be a tool to achieve greater financial inclusion and lower the high costs of payments. “Central bank digital currencies . . . offer in digital form the unique advantages of central bank money: settlement finality, liquidity and integrity,” it said.

In contrast, bitcoin wasted energy and cryptocurrencies were “speculative assets rather than money, and in many cases are used to facilitate money laundering, ransomware attacks and other financial crimes”.

South Korea has acted against the financial crime of tax evasion, with more than Won53bn ($47m) of bitcoin, ethereum and other cryptoassets confiscated from 12,000 people. Officials said it was the largest “cryptocurrency seizure for back taxes in Korean history” and noted that local exchanges had allegedly been used to conceal assets because they did not collect the resident registration numbers of account holders. Many of South Korea’s 60 crypto exchanges are battling to meet regulatory conditions to operate beyond September.

This week’s #techAsia newsletter asks whether the death knell is being sounded for cryptocurrencies. That could be the case in China, where it is scaling up tests of its official digital renminbi, and appears serious about stamping out the crypto industry on its soil. Bitcoin fell below $30,000 on Tuesday following the latest regulatory crackdown, but it has recovered to be worth more than $34,000 today.

The Internet of (Five) Things

1. Migrant workers locked up in Taiwan
With Taiwan under pressure to increase manufacturing output to ease global shortages, particularly of semiconductors, electronics groups including Japan’s Canon and Innolux, an affiliate of Apple supplier Foxconn, have been accused of locking up migrant workers amid an outbreak of Covid-19. Some companies have forbidden migrant workers from leaving the dormitories where they live except to go to work.

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#techFT brings you news, comment and analysis on the big companies, technologies and issues shaping this fastest moving of sectors from specialists based around the world. Click here to get #techFT in your inbox.

2. SoftBank not a ‘one-man show’, says Son
Masayoshi Son has told shareholders that SoftBank will not prioritise short-term trading gains as the company behind the world’s most aggressive technology fund was grilled over governance failures after the collapses of Greensill and Katerra. At its annual shareholder meeting, the 63-year-old billionaire founder defended the Japanese conglomerate’s governance structure, saying the board was not “Masayoshi Son’s one-man show”.

3. Toshiba’s ’dark arts’ and dirty tricks
Today’s Big Read sets the stage for Japan’s most contentious annual shareholder meeting in decades. At its centre is the fate of Osamu Nagayama, the widely respected chair of Toshiba who faces being swept away by a mass shareholder revolt that could — in a single vote on Friday — sack the entire board of one of Japan’s most famous industrial names.

4. ‘Amazon effect’ hits US wages
Companies struggling to find workers as the US economy reopens have blamed higher unemployment benefits, limited immigration, childcare challenges . . . and Amazon. The ecommerce leader recruited aggressively last year, hiring 500,000 people worldwide, while in the US, it paid at least $15 an hour before benefits, double the federal minimum wage. 

Line chart of Average hourly earnings, not seasonally adjusted ($) showing Pandemic demand has boosted warehouse workers' wages

5. US takes down Iranian websites
US authorities have seized dozens of websites linked to Iranian groups, including the Revolutionary Guards, accusing them of spreading misinformation and operating in the country without licences. The Department of Justice said 36 websites had been taken down, 33 of which were operated by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union. 

Tech tools — Brave and Vivaldi push privacy

Pro-privacy browser Brave has launched a global beta of its own-brand search engine Brave Search, reports Techcrunch. The non-tracking search engine is being offered as one of multiple search options that users of the browser can pick from (including Google’s), but Brave says it will make it the default search later this year. Meanwhile, a 4.0 version of Vivaldi, which offers similar browser privacy features, was launched this month. It has now added translation and the options of adding an email client, calendar and RSS reader.

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China bolsters ties with Myanmar junta despite international condemnation

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Trade and diplomatic ties between Myanmar and China are normalising in the face of intense domestic opposition and international condemnation of the military junta that seized power in February.

Beijing has strengthened relations with Myanmar’s military leaders despite a series of violent attacks against Chinese business interests in the country after Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was toppled.

Yun Sun, an expert on Myanmar-China relations with the Stimson Center, a US think-tank, said Beijing had already made a “fundamental assessment” that Myanmar was moving into another prolonged period of military rule.

“I think the Chinese can see that this military coup is successful and is here to stay,” she added.

The resumption of state-level engagements and economic activity signals that Myanmar is reverting to its traditional economic reliance on China. The country has used its larger neighbour as a buffer against international sanctions and divestment by foreign investors, who have announced plans to quit the country or shelved projects.

Since the coup, 875 people have been killed by the junta and 6,242 arrested, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights group. The country’s economy and public services were severely disrupted by mass protests in the three months that followed the putsch, and have only partially recovered.

The resumption of bilateral trade will fuel the widespread suspicion among anti-coup resistance groups that China was prepared to support the new military regime.

The cumulative value of China’s imports from Myanmar for the first five months of the year was $3.38bn, up from $2.43bn in 2020 and $2.56bn in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, according to official Chinese customs data.

Exports to Myanmar for the same period have not recovered to the same extent, however. By the end of May, goods valued at $4.28bn had been shipped to Myanmar, compared with $4.56bn and $4.79bn in the two previous years.

In a further sign of strengthening diplomatic relations, Chen Hai, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, met coup leader and military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw, the capital, in June. In a subsequent statement, Chen referred to Min Aung Hlaing as the leader of Myanmar.

China was among the countries that abstained in a UN general assembly vote last week calling on the international community to halt the flow of arms to Myanmar and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees. 

Beijing had good relations with the government of the deposed leader, who is in detention facing multiple criminal charges. However, it has refrained from criticising the military, fanning anger among the mass protest movement that sprang up after the coup. 

Beyond being Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, China also has strategic infrastructure investments in the country, including energy pipelines that give Beijing a critical link to the Indian Ocean.

James Char, a Myanmar expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said many people in Myanmar still blamed the Chinese government and business interests for complicity in supporting the military’s decades of rule before the transition to democracy.

“The Chinese, themselves, are very clear about [public sentiment in Myanmar],” Char said.

Attacks on China-linked businesses in the wake of the coup culminated in an explosion at a Chinese-backed textile factory west of Yangon on June 11, according to reports from local Myanmar media, as well as junta-controlled information services and Chinese state media.

Beijing’s wariness of inflaming Myanmar protesters would probably slow Chinese direct investments and the resumption of planned larger-scale developments that formed part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, analysts said.

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing



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Australia calls Great Barrier Reef warning politically motivated

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Australia has labelled a draft decision by the UN’s World Heritage Committee to include the Great Barrier Reef on its “in danger” list as politically motivated.

The committee, which is chaired by Tian Xuejun, China’s vice-minister for education, and selects Unesco World Heritage sites, proposed adding the world’s largest collection of coral reefs to the danger list because of the damaging impact of climate change and coastal development.

The designation could ultimately lead to the reef losing its World Heritage status, although officials said listing was intended to prompt emergency action to safeguard a living structure that stretches 2,300km along Australia’s eastern coast.

But Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, said the government had been “blindsided” by the committee’s finding and alleged there was a lack of consultation and transparency. She added that Canberra would challenge the draft decision.

“When procedures are not followed, when the process is turned on its head five minutes before the draft decision is due to be published, when the assurances my officials received and indeed I did have been upended, what else can you conclude but that it is politics?” she said.

That the World Heritage Committee is chaired by a senior Chinese official has stoked suspicions in Canberra that it had been singled out over its diplomatic and trade clash with Beijing.

China-Australia relations have soured following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and Beijing’s imposition of tariffs on Australian wine and barley imports.

Ley said she and Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, had already spoken with Audrey Azoulay, Unesco director-general, to complain about the draft decision.

But scientists downplayed the suggestion that the “in danger” listing was politically motivated. Three mass bleaching events in five years demonstrated the need for the government to do more to tackle climate change, they said.

“I’m seeing some press coverage saying this is all a plot by China not to buy wine, lobsters and to screw the Barrier Reef. I think that’s pretty far-fetched given that the draft decision released overnight will be voted on by 21 countries,” said Terry Hughes, professor of marine biology at James Cook University.

The controversy will heap further international pressure on Canberra, which has been pressed by the US, UK and others to commit to a national target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

In a draft decision due to be voted on next month, the committee urged Canberra to “provide clear commitments to address threats from climate change, in conformity with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and allow to meet water quality targets faster”.

It noted the loss of almost one-third of shallow-water coral cover following a “bleaching” event in 2016 — a process linked to warmer than normal water that can lead to a mass die-off of coral.

The row over the “in danger” listing occurred at a difficult time for Australia’s conservative coalition, which is embroiled in internal squabbling over climate policies.

On Monday, Barnaby Joyce, a climate sceptic and supporter of coal mining, ousted Michael McCormack to become leader of the National party, the junior coalition partner to the Liberal party, and Australia’s deputy prime minister. Joyce is expected to oppose any move to commit to net zero by 2050.

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