Alibaba May Be Forced to Sell Media Businesses by Chinese Government (Report)

Patrick Frater
·3-min read

The Chinese government may order e-commerce to entertainment giant Alibaba to sell off or cut back its vast array of media assets. In addition to the company’s too-big-to fail status derived from activities that range from food retailing to electronic payments, China’s government has reportedly become concerned about Alibaba’s ability to influence public opinion.

After government regulators drew up an inventory of the group’s media assets earlier this year, they have begun negotiations with Alibaba that may lead to disposal of some of its media businesses, according to a Wall Street Journal report citing anonymous sources.

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Alibaba’s media and entertainment portfolio is huge and diverse, though it is almost entirely focused on Greater China. The businesses range from print publishing to video streaming, and include minority stakes in social media firms, cinemas and film production companies.

One of its most prominent overseas jewels is a minority stake of unknown size in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners, bought in late 2016. Another is its majority stake in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper publisher, bought earlier the same year.

In response to the report, Alibaba said in a statement: “The purpose of our investments in these companies is to provide technology support for their business upgrade and drive commercial synergies with our core commerce businesses. We do not intervene or get involved in the companies’ day-to-day operations or editorial decisions.”

The vast majority of media in China is owned or controlled by the state at some level. That allows central authorities to direct news flow, emphasize favored topics, demonize enemies and exclude information and opinion that does not support Communist Party messaging.

Social media, with its diversity and speed, is increasingly being seen as a challenge to the China government’s ability to speak with one voice. Over the years, social platforms have been required to do the government’s bidding by employing ever increasing number of staff to censor user comments and user-generated content.

Despite companies’ compliance, Chinese authorities have also spent several months devising ways to rein in the country’s tech giants. Financial regulatory authorities halted the spinoff and IPO of Alibaba’s financial arm, Ant Group, in late 2020. They have also used the State Authority for Market Regulation to punish tech firms for unauthorized merger and acquisition activity, and in late December Alibaba was given formal notification of an investigation into alleged monopolistic behavior.

Among Alibaba’s core media and entertainment businesses is Youku Tudou, one of China’s largest generalist video streaming firms. Its Alibaba Pictures unit, which has a separate share listing in Hong Kong, contains film production and distribution businesses as well as Tao Piao Piao, one of two companies that dominate cinema ticketing.

Alibaba also amassed minority stakes in publisher Yicai Media (37%), video streamer Mango TV (5%), Twitter-like social media platform Weibo (30%), video entertainment group Bilibili (6.7%) and Focus Media (5.3%), China’s top online advertising network.

It also has stakes in film studios Huayi Bros. Media, Bona Film Group, film financier Hehe Pictures and exhibition chains Dadi Cinemas and Wanda Pictures. Those investments have often appeared to be at the behest of Chinese authorities as a means of using Alibaba’s massive financial strength to shore up the country’s entertainment sector, which is huge but remains in its industrial infancy.

Alibaba shares are listed in ARD form on the New York Stock Exchange. The company has a secondary listing in Hong Kong. The conglomerate’s market capitalization was around $620 billion on Monday.

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