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China roundup: Beijing takes stake in ByteDance, Amazon continues China crackdown

·5-min read

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

This week, investors' concerns mount as news came that the Chinese government has taken a stake ByteDance, TikTok's parent and one of the world's largest private internet firms. Meanwhile, Amazon's crackdown on Chinese sellers continues and is forcing many traders in southern China out of business, and the government passed a sweeping data protection law that will take effect in November.

A state stake

The Chinese government's grand plan to assert more control over the country's internet behemoths continues. This week, The Information reported that a domestic entity of ByteDance sold a 1% stake to a government affiliate in April. The deal was also recorded on Tianyancha, a database of publicly available corporate information, as well as the official enterprise registration index.

The move didn't come abruptly. Beijing was mulling over small shares in private tech firms as early as 2017. The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that internet regulators discussed taking 1% stakes in companies including WeChat operator Tencent, Twitter-like Weibo and YouTube-like Youku.

In April 2020, WangTouTongDa, a subsidiary of China Internet Investment Fund, which is in turn controlled by China’s top internet watchdog, acquired a 1% stake in Weibo for 10 million yuan, according to Weibo's filing to the U.S. securities regulator. Weibo did not mention WangTouTongDa's relationship with the state in its filing.

Similarly, ByteDance sold a 1% stake to three entities set up by top regulatory bodies: China Internet Investment Fund; China Media Group, controlled by the Communist Party’s propaganda department; and the Beijing municipal government’s investment arm.

In response to Beijing's move on ByteDance, Republican senator Marco Rubio urged President Joe Biden this week to block TikTok in the U.S.

Exactly how much power Beijing gains over ByteDance from taking the small stake remains fuzzy, but Weibo's disclosure to investors offers some clues.

It's critical to note that the government holds stakes in the domestic operating entity of both Weibo and ByteDance. Internet companies in China often set up offshore entities that are entitled to the financial benefits of their mainland Chinese operations through contractual agreements. The framework is called a variable interest entity or VIE. While the structure allows Chinese firms to seek overseas funding due to China's restrictions on foreign investments, it has come under increasing scrutiny by Beijing.

Weibo said in the filing that WangTouTongda, its state-owned investor, will be able to appoint a director to the three-member board of its Chinese entity and veto certain matters related to content and future financings.

ByteDance likely has a similar arrangement with its state investor. The government did not obtain a stake in TikTok, which is a subsidiary of a separate offshore entity incorporated in the Cayman Islands, The Information pointed out. This should provide some reassurance to U.S. regulators, though concerns about Beijing's sway in Chinese companies abroad probably won't go away.

Indeed, the Biden administration in June replaced the Trump-era orders to ban ByteDance and WeChat with a more measured policy requiring the Commerce Department to review apps with ties to "jurisdiction of foreign adversaries" that may pose national security risks.

TikTok has been fighting accusations that it hands over user data to Beijing. ByteDance is the fourth-largest lobbying spender in the U.S. so far this year, just after Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet. Beijing's investment is going to cost it more campaign efforts.

Beleaguered Amazon sellers

In May, I reported that Amazon shuttered some of its largest sellers from China over violations of platform rules, including using fake reviews and incentives to solicit positive reviews from customers. The crackdown drove China's online exporters into a panic, and as it turned out, it wasn't a one-off ambush from Amazon but a prolonged war. While the exact number of Chinese stores affected is not disclosed, industry observers such as Marketplace Pulse said "hundreds of" top Chinese sellers had been suspended as of early July.

Punished accounts are suspended, with their goods withheld and deposits frozen by Amazon. Companies in Shenzhen, home to the majority of the world's Amazon sellers, laid off thousands of staff in recent months. The owner of a sizable seller in Shenzhen recently died by suicide due to the debacle, according to an acquaintance of the owner.

To sellers that have survived the crackdown, the attack by Amazon "would have happened sooner or later." Most of the exporters I talked to came to the same conclusion: The Seattle-based titan now wants quality and design over generic products that compete solely on price and manipulation of ranking.

The Chinese government has taken note of the incidents. An official from the Ministry of Commerce compared the wave of store closures as Chinese exporters being "fish out of water" during a press conference in July.

"Due to differences in laws, culture and business practices around the world, [Chinese] companies are facing risks and challenges as they go overseas," said Li Xingqian, director of foreign trade at the Commerce Ministry.

"We will help companies improve their risk control and comply with international trade standards." Meanwhile, the official called for "the platform/platforms to cherish the important contribution from various companies and fully respect different trade entities."

Data protection

And finally, China passed a sweeping data protection law this week that will strictly limit how tech companies collect user information, but the rules won't likely have an impact on state surveillance. The regulation, which was proposed last year, will take effect on November 1. Read more about the rules here:

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