April 8, 2021
China’s tech tycoons have not been themselves lately. In early March, at the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, Pony Ma called for stricter regulation of Tencent, the $700bn online empire he founded. Days later a rising star, Simon Hu, left his post as chief executive of Ant Group, a huge financial-technology firm affiliated with Alibaba, an e-commerce titan. Shortly after that Colin Huang stepped down as chairman of Pinduoduo, rattling investors still celebrating his upstart e-emporium’s recent announcement that it had overtaken Alibaba measured by the number of shoppers. Jack Ma, Alibaba’s outspoken co-founder and China’s most recognisable entrepreneur, has not been seen in public for months, with the exception of a video where he discusses the country’s education system.
Their companies’ stocks have also been behaving out of character. Having added as much as $1.2trn to their combined market capitalisation since 2016, Alibaba, Pinduoduo and Tencent have seen their share prices tumble in recent weeks (see chart 1). The unlisted Ant is thought to be worth $200bn, down from more than $300bn in October. Throw in a few dozen other big Chinese tech groups and some $700bn in shareholder value has been wiped out since mid-February.