Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

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 Group.

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 US$2.8-billion for abusing its dominance in digital retail – a record penalty for violations of the country’s anti-monopoly law.

Story continues below advertisement

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 centre 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 at a time 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 Monday that it would apply to become a financial holding company, which would bring closer supervision and requirements that it hold onto 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 as well.

The company also said it would strengthen security protections for the personal information it collects 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 IPO 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.

Story continues below advertisement

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 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 IPO – he appeared to have pushed the government’s willingness to being criticized too far.

Story continues below advertisement

“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 that 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 last 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 non-financial companies had “blindly” entered the financial industry.

Story continues below advertisement

As Ant accepted its overhaul on Monday, China carefully co-ordinated 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.

Be smart with your money. Get the latest investing insights delivered right to your inbox three times a week, with the Globe Investor newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Tickers mentioned in this story
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies