Now the chances that those bold statements become real have heightened. “Given what has happened, eventually Ant will have to be controlled or even majority owned by the state,” said Zhiwu Chen, an economist at Hong Kong University’s business school.
The pressure on Mr. Ma signals a shift in how the Chinese government regulates the internet. It has long censored content, but in other ways it has adopted a laissez-faire approach. Regulations were spare. No state-run companies were involved. And at the beginning, China’s internet industry was small.
Today, Alibaba and its archrival, Tencent, control more personal data and are more intimately involved in everyday life in China than Google, Facebook and other American tech titans are in the United States. And just like their American counterparts, the Chinese giants sometimes bully smaller competitors and kill innovation. You don’t have to be a member of the Communist Party to see reasons to rein them in.
Instead of disrupting the state system, the companies have cozied up to it. Sometimes they even help the authorities track people. Still, the government has increasingly seen their size and influence as a threat.
China’s tech companies are not the country’s biggest monopolies, however. Those are owned by the state, which dominates banking and finance, telecommunications, electricity and other essential businesses.
“China Mobile is a monopoly. Industrial and Commercial Bank of China is a monopoly,” wrote Zhang Weiying, a well-regarded Peking University economist, in 2017, “because without the government permission, you can’t enter these industries.”
The article was reposted under several social media accounts last week but was quickly censored.
It’s too early to tell how far the regulators will go in reining in Mr. Ma and big tech. But some pro-market people in China worry that the country is drifting toward the hard line of the 1950s, when the party eliminated the capital class, using language that compared capitalist leanings to impurities, flaws and weaknesses.