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What we can read in to Jack Ma’s disappearance

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Among the many features of Jack Ma’s speech to the Bund Summit last October — a calamitous address that criticised regulators and accused China’s state-owned banks of having a “pawnshop mentality” — three now stand out. 

The first is that the Alibaba founder read his critique from sheets of paper. The second, based on the protracted share-price mauling that followed, is that the 20-minute speech cost the company roughly $12.8bn of market value for every 60 seconds of oratory. The third is that the October 24 event was the last time anyone saw China’s most famous businessman in public.

The latter two are a focus of intensifying speculation. The sinister invisibility of Mr Ma — whether forced or judiciously self-imposed by a man calculating how deeply to kowtow for rehabilitation — raises the spectre of a state determined to show that nobody, and no business, is untouchable. 

The bleakest interpretation is that Chinese president Xi Jinping, egged on by state-owned bank supremos who resent Mr Ma’s disruption of their sector, has initiated some version of what Vladimir Putin did to the Yukos oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. That would be cutting down a billionaire challenger and seizing the source of his strength. It is also possible that Mr Ma’s disappearance is concealing the choreography required to avoid that outcome. 

Meanwhile, the Alibaba share price remains justifiably punctured by the many questions the past two months have raised. These surround Alibaba’s future relationship with the state, the vulnerabilities of the Chinese tech sector to antitrust measures, and the status of private enterprise in the world’s second-biggest economy. 

Pre-eminently, there is the immediate future of Ant Group, Mr Ma’s expansionist tech services conglomerate. Its planned $35bn share sale last November would have been the largest initial public offering in history — until it was blasted into limbo by financial regulators. Subsequent state-generated condemnation of Ant suggests that its critics want to ensure the company can never be the diamond-toothed profit miner of consumer finance that investors sought to value at $300bn.

Fuelling this speculation is the theory that Mr Ma has crossed a Rubicon with Xi Jinping. He has done so, runs this logic, after decades of merely dipping his toes in its waters and acquiring the sort of enemies that always hoped he would make a decisive transgression. China’s history of chief executive disappearances and abrupt regulatory crackdowns means the spectrum of possible outcomes for Mr Ma — from teeth-gritted statements of regret to full implosion — is both wide and alarmingly plausible. Beijing is now censoring local coverage of the probe.

The actual outcome may depend on the answer to a closely-related question: is the line that Mr Ma crossed an old and established one, or something new, less navigable and representative of Beijing policy change?

Both possibilities could be argued. What is certain, though, is that Mr Ma’s October speech clearly breached a fundamental rule in China: the Communist party doesn’t mind someone becoming rich, as long as the status that wealth confers is not used to mount anything resembling a political challenge. This is something Mr Ma has known and navigated successfully for almost 20 years. 

All of which only deepens the mystery of why he said what he did in October. Deducing this, in some ways, is more important than ascertaining Mr Ma’s current location or freedom, and comes back to the mould-breaking delivery of the speech itself.

Long-term scrutineers of Mr Ma note how exceptionally rare it was for him to read from a written script and how odd for a known maestro of improvisation and room-reading to misjudge his audience. More fundamentally, there is no way of interpreting the speech as anything other than a criticism of the state-owned financial sector and, by extension, of the administration that sits behind it. It cannot have been written or delivered without knowing how it would resonate.

Still, explanations from those who know Mr Ma range from “he was incredibly stupid” to more elaborate theories about staggering wealth deluding people about appetite for their opinions.

Some conclude that Mr Ma may have believed his criticisms would receive quiet nods of agreement and that, because there had been pre-IPO distributions of Ant shares to the banks and the “all-China” nature of the listing, he had high-level protection. His miscalculation now looks spectacular, even by his astral standards of showmanship.

But the aberrant nature of the speech may hold the key to salvation. Mr Khodorkovsky was actually mounting a challenge to Mr Putin. For all his criticism of the regulators, and the speech’s revolutionary tone, Mr Ma is not attempting something similar with Mr Xi. It is possible that Mr Ma can use this phase of invisibility to carry out a delicate rebuilding exercise. Framing the speech as a moment of madness may provide him with the first step.

leo.lewis@ft.com



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Toyota faces Thai bribery probe over tax dispute

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Toyota is under investigation in Thailand over allegations that consultants hired by the world’s largest carmaker tried to bribe local officials in a tax dispute, according to Thai authorities, court documents and a person with knowledge of the matter.

The probe followed a filing last month in which Toyota revealed that it had reported “possible anti-bribery violations” related to its Thai subsidiary to the US Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission.

Toyota is one of the biggest foreign investors in Thailand, where it makes a large range of cars, vans and pick-up trucks for the local market and for export. The country is Toyota’s biggest manufacturing hub in south-east Asia. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, car sales had been strong in a market, where it has a 31 per cent share.

This month, Thailand’s Court of Justice said in a statement that it would take action against any of its judges found to have taken bribes. The statement, which the court described as a move to “clarify facts” in a news report on a foreign website, directly referenced a tax dispute involving Toyota.

“If the Court of Justice has received information or explicitly found that any judge committed an act of corruption to their duty, whether it is about bribery or not, the Court of Justice will resolutely investigate and punish any action which dishonours judges, undermines the neutrality of the court, or causes society [to] lose faith in the Thai justice system,” it said.

According to the court, the case involved a tax dispute worth Bt10bn ($320m) between Toyota Motor Thailand and tax authorities over imports of parts for its Prius hybrid model. 

The affair dates back to 2015, when Toyota’s Thai subsidiary was accused by local customs authorities of understating taxes by claiming that the imported Prius vehicles were assembled from completely knocked down kits, or imported parts that were later assembled in Thailand.

CKDs would have been subject to a discounted tax rate under a Japanese-Thai free trade agreement, but if the cars were fully assembled before being imported they would have attracted a much higher rate. 

Toyota appealed against a decision by customs authorities to impose a higher duty in 2015, but lost. 

Thailand’s Court of Justice has said that it had accepted a petition to review the case, but had not yet begun hearing it.

In its regulatory filing last month, Toyota warned that the US investigations regarding its Thai subsidiary could result in civil or criminal penalties, but the company has not disclosed any detail on the allegations.

In a statement, Toyota said it was co-operating with the investigations and declined to comment on the tax dispute in Thailand. “We take any allegations of wrongdoing seriously and are committed to ensuring that our business practices comply with all applicable government regulations,” it said.

The SEC and the DOJ declined to comment.



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Boris Johnson cancels India trip after Covid cases surge in country

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UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s trip to India this month has been cancelled as the country battles a new variant and a surge in coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals.

A joint statement by the British and Indian governments said the decision to scrap the visit scheduled for next week was prompted by the “current coronavirus situation”.

The trip, during which Johnson had hoped to discuss the prospects of a closer trading partnership with India, was initially planned to run for four days but had been scaled back. The two leaders will speak remotely instead, with plans to meet in person later this year.

The cancellation came as India’s capital city region has been put under lockdown and authorities have prohibited the use of oxygen except for essential services, as the country battles a surge in coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals.

India continues to set single-day records of coronavirus cases, reporting more than 273,000 new infections and 1,619 deaths on Monday, with the number of new cases growing by an average of 7 per cent a day, one of the fastest rates in any big country.

The surge is believed to be linked to a new B.1.617 variant that was first discovered in the country.

British health officials are investigating whether the variant should be reclassified from a “variant under investigation” to a “variant of concern” following the discovery of 77 cases in the UK.

“To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it’s increased transmissibility, increased severity, or vaccine-evading, and we just don’t have that yet, but we’re looking at the data on a daily basis”, Dr Susan Hopkins, a senior medical adviser at Public Health England, said on Sunday.

Officials in Delhi announced it would impose a strict lockdown for a week, following Mumbai and other cities that have already placed curbs on movement.

States are running short of beds, drugs and oxygen, leading the central government to restrict use of the gas. “The supply of oxygen for industrial purposes by manufacturers and suppliers is prohibited forthwith from 22/04/2021 till further orders,” the central government said.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, said “oxygen has become an emergency” in the region because its quota had been diverted to other states. He warned there were “less than 100 ICU beds” available.

The new restrictions have been imposed even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party have hosted huge political rallies and allowed religious festivals attended by tens of thousands of maskless people in recent weeks.

Amit Shah, India’s home minister, told the Indian Express newspaper that he was “concerned” about the variant and the “surge is mainly because of the new mutants of the virus”. But he was “confident we will win” over the disease and said there was not yet a need to impose a national lockdown.

Bed shortages in India have forced authorities to re-establish emergency coronavirus hospitals in banquet halls, train stations and hotels that had been shut down following the previous peak in September. Crematoriums in the state of Gujarat and Delhi are running 24 hours a day, while cemeteries are running out of burial spaces.

Coronavirus patients have also been struggling to access medicines. More than 800 injections of remdesivir, an antiviral drug commonly used in India as part of Covid-19 treatment, were stolen from a hospital in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, at the weekend.

India is also facing a vaccine supply crunch and has frozen international exports of jabs to meet domestic demand. New Delhi pledged on Friday to increase monthly production of Covaxin, a vaccine made by Indian manufacturer Bharat Biotech, to 100m from 10m by September. The government also said last week that it would fast-track the approval of foreign vaccines in an attempt to boost supply and cleared Russia’s Sputnik V for use in the country.

The majority of the more than 120m Indians that have been vaccinated have received the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab manufactured by Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer. The Serum Institute has struggled to increase its monthly capacity of more than 60m doses a month due to a fire at its plant earlier in the year and equipment supply shortages from the US.

Additional reporting by John Burn-Murdoch in London





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The limits of China’s taming of tech

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The record fine handed out this month to Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce giant, was a welcome step toward combating anti-competitive behaviour. The $2.8bn penalty put Alibaba and other tech companies on notice that creating siloed fiefdoms designed to trap customers and merchants within their ecosystems will not be tolerated.

It was addressing a longstanding problem. Many of China’s ecommerce companies operate “walled gardens” that prevent interactions with rival platforms. For example, Alibaba’s Taobao ecommerce app keeps users from paying for goods using the payment app of rival Tencent. Tencent’s social media app, WeChat, prevents clips from being shared directly from ByteDance’s video-sharing app. 

Last week China’s internet and market regulators signalled the seriousness of their intent. They gave tech companies one month to fix anti-competitive practices, telling them to conduct “comprehensive self-inspections” and “completely rectify” problems, following which they would need to publicly promise to abide by the rules. The aim is create a commercially open and competitive internet.

It is tempting to argue that regulators in the west could take a leaf out of China’s book. But to hold China up as an example of competitive best practice would be to ignore the elephant in the room. Although Beijing is giving its monopolistically-minded internet companies — which are almost all private enterprises — a rap on the knuckles, it shows no sign of applying the same standards to vast swaths of the economy that have been dominated by state-owned giants for decades. 

The market dominance of these behemoths of state capitalism is an issue that affects not only domestic competitors but also foreign multinationals that operate in China. A trenchant joint paper last week from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, and the Rhodium Group, a consultancy, took aim at the increasingly unfair advantages that this system gives China.

While it is true that China has opened up sectors such as financial services to foreign capital in recent years and allowed foreign brands to win market share in luxury goods and pharmaceuticals, broad sectors of the economy remain fully or partially closed or to overseas investors. 

Often the barriers erected to block or stymie competition are informal. Authorities can deliberately favour domestic companies in public procurement, are more ready to grant approval for licenses, subject foreign firms to arbitrary inspections or require them to re-engineer products to meet idiosyncratic domestic standards.

Such drawbacks are not new. But they are taking on an extra urgency as Chinese companies become leaders in an increasing number of industries and the country’s technological prowess draws level with the US and Europe in a list of industries. The key problem now, says the ECFR/Rhodium report, is that Chinese multinationals are using the advantage of a protected home market to build up resources that they then deploy in competition with western counterparts abroad.

This sets the scene for friction. China should extend its anti-monopolistic scrutiny from its own privately owned internet companies to several state-dominated sectors of its economy, taking care to open to foreign multinationals as much as domestic competitors. If it decides against doing this — as is likely — it will be furnishing Europeans and Americans with ammunition to argue against extending access to Chinese corporations in their own markets.



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