INTERNET: Alibaba’s Ant Takes a Bite of Hong Kong

Bottom line: Ant Financial’s purchase of 20 percent of Hong Kong restaurant ratings site OpenRice looks like a smart, incremental move to boost its presence in its first major foray to build a local customer base outside China.

Ant Financial buys into HK’s OpenRice

We’ll close out the week with a lighter story, with word that Alibaba’s (NYSE: BABA) Ant Financial affiliate has taken a nibble at Hong Kong with an investment in the territory’s most popular restaurant ratings site. On a more serious note, we should point out that this particular acquisition comes after the much higher-profile failure of Ant’s bid to buy US money-transfer giant MoneyGram (NYSE: MGI), which was vetoed by Washington on national security ground.

This latest particular purchase is somewhat interesting, as Hong Kong is quickly evolving into an important test case for whether Ant can successfully export its popular Alipay electronic payments service to other markets. Alipay is already widely available throughout the world, but only as a vehicle for Chinese to make payments when traveling overseas. Thus Ant really hasn’t tried to target local consumers in any market in meaningful ways outside China. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Trump-Ma Honeymoon Ends as Alibaba Lands on US Black List

Bottom line: The inclusion of Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace on the latest edition of a US blacklist for piracy signals US is taking a tougher line on trade issues.

Alibaba calls itself ‘scapegoat’ after landing on US blacklist

What a difference a year makes. It was just about this time a year ago that Alibaba (NYSE: BABA) founder Jack Ma scored a major coup by becoming the first major Chinese business leader to score a visit with incoming US President Donald Trump. (previous post) The pair were all smiles back then, with Ma trumpeting a plan to create 1 million American jobs by helping US businesses selling their products into China over Alibaba’s popular e-commerce platforms.

Fast forward to the present, where Ma isn’t smiling anymore, and Alibaba has even taken the unusual step of accusing Trump of making the company into a scapegoat in a growing tide of US protectionism. The abrupt turnabout hinges on two major developments, the most recent being the placement of Alibaba’s consumer-to-consumer (C2C) Taobao website on Washington’s annual “notorious” list of marketplaces with rampant trafficking in pirated goods. That follows another setback for Ma earlier this month when a plan by his Ant Financial saw its plan for a major US acquisition crushed by the Trump administration. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Google Re-lands on China Map

Bottom line: Google has quietly resumed updates of its China mapping service in a bid to tap the booming local market for location-based services.

Google resumes China mapping updates

Are they or aren’t they? That’s the question going through everyone’s minds these days about Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) stealth return to China, following reports that the company has quietly re-launched its previously dormant mapping service in the market. In this case there are quite a few conflicting signals, including the one coming from Google itself, which says nothing has changed with its mapping service.

I was a bit surprised at Google’s definitive statement, since I can say with certainty that the company has indeed resumed updating its popular mapping service following a dormant period of at least a few years after shuttering its China-based search service in 2010. Last year there was similar word that Google’s map site had resumed service in China, and I went and checked the URL at the time. Read Full Post…

SMARTPHONES: Dumped by AT&T, Huawei Enters US with Supermodel

Bottom line: Huawei’s decision to go ahead with a US market entry for its latest high-end phone, despite collapse of a tie-up with AT&T, is likely to produce very limited results due to lack of a carrier partner.

Huawei goes solo into US

If you can’t get a serious business partner, at least get a pretty face. That seems to be the message coming from a frustrated Huawei, which has announced it has signed on “Wonder Woman” star and model Gal Gadot as chief experience officer as it prepares to enter the US. This somewhat frivolous move was most likely part of a bigger announcement the company hoped to make for a grander entry to the US in partnership with corporate partner AT&T (NYSE: T).

But as many market watchers may already know, the AT&T deal reportedly collapsed at the last moment for unexplained reasons. The new tie-ups were all set to be unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) taking place this week in Las Vegas. While the show went on and Huawei announced plans to release a version of its high-end Mate 10 in the US, with Gadot as product spokeswoman, the AT&T announcement never came. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Meituan Aims at Didi with Drive Into Car-Sharing

Bottom line: Meituan’s move into shared car services is likely to reignite a price war with incumbent Didi, and could be aimed at generating excitement ahead of a mega-IPO later this year. 

Meituan entering shared cars

Just days after reports emerged that car-sharing giant Didi Chuxing would pedal into the shared bike market, new reports are saying that group buying giant Meituan-Dianping is driving into Didi’s own shared car services space. These two stories underscore a theme that comes up time and again in the China tech world, whereby cash-rich companies often pile into hot and trendy sectors where they have little or no experience.

In this case the Meituan move has interesting implications because it could restart a fierce price war that was finally resolved last year when Didi merged with Uber China to take on its current form. Didi has pretty much owned the market since then, though it still faces some competition at various local levels. Now all that could change with the entry of Meituan, which should be flush with cash to launch yet a new round of price wars. Read Full Post…

SMARTPHONES: LeEco Sells Down Coolpad Stake

Bottom line: LeEco’s sell-down of its Coolpad stake is a prelude to disposal of the remainder, and could presage a sale of Coolpad to another smartphone maker later this year.

LeEco sells down Coolpad stake

The unraveling of former online video superstar LeEco (Shenzhen: 300104) continues as we head into the new week, with word the company has sold off a significant chunk of its stake in struggling smartphone maker Coolpad (HKEx: 2369) for a fraction of what it paid. This particular news is significant for a number of reasons, only one of which involves the latest attempt to salvage LeEco. It also has large implications for the future survival of Coolpad, and China’s broader smartphone industry. Some have predicted 2018 will be the year this overcrowded industry finally sees a weed-out that is long overdue.

I and many others have predicted this particular sale for a while, so the actual news doesn’t come as a huge surprise. LeEco purchased about 30 percent of Coolpad in two tranches for a combined $500 million in 2015 and 2016, when it was at the height of its meteoric rise. Coolpad had a relatively sound name at that time, though it was already feeling the effects of intense competition in China’s smartphone space. Fast forward to the present, when the future of both companies is in serious doubt, as each loses big money and struggles under major debt piles. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Didi Chuxing Drives Into Bikes, Brazil

Bottom line: Didi’s Brazilian acquisition looks relatively shrewd and could be followed by more such moves in developing markets, while its purchase of a local bike-sharing firm looks less prudent.

Didi drives into Brazil

China’s homegrown Uber is in a couple of headlines as we round out the first week of the new year,  reflecting its global aspirations and also its desire to expand beyond its original car-based services at home. The first headline has Didi Chuxing making its first major overseas acquisition in Brazil, while the second has it buying what is probably China’s largest shared bike operator behind the leading pair of Mobike and Ofo.

Each of these headlines is interesting though not earth shattering, and in my view probably reflect the fact that Didi has too much cash more than anything else. This is a classic problem for this kind of superstar Chinese startup, which often runs into the unusual problem of raising more cash than it really needs simply because so many investors want to buy in. At the same time, Didi’s own car services business has probably shrunk over the last year, following a clampdown by many major cities and also as the novelty factor wears off for many consumers. Read Full Post…

FINANCE: US Squashes Ant Financial’s MoneyGram Dream

Bottom line: The collapse of Ant Financial’s purchase of MoneyGram reflects growing resistance from a Trump administration willing to mix business and politics in its relationship with China.

Ant’s purchase of MoneyGram sinks

In yet the latest sign that the Donald Trump administration intends to take a hard line towards Chinese M&A, Washington has killed a $1.2 billion deal that would have seen Alibaba-affiliated (NYSE: BABA) Ant Financial purchase US money-transfer specialist MoneyGram (Nasdaq: MGI). This particular development isn’t a huge surprise, since the deal was first announced about a year ago and its closure deadline was extended several times while the US hemmed and hawed on its national security review.

The de facto veto is also just the latest move by a Trump administration that has shown it won’t let US companies in the strategic tech and financial industries be acquired by Chinese counterparts. But this particular veto is also noteworthy because it’s one of the largest so far involving a purely private sector Chinese buyer. Up to now, nearly all the deals to be vetoed have come from buyers with strong links to Beijing, either directly or through government-supplied financing. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Google Launches China AI Lab, Still No App Store

Bottom line: Google’s launch of a China AI lab marks the latest step in its campaign to curry favor with Beijing, which could give it a 50-50 chance of being allowed to sell its Pixel phones and open a China Google Play store in 2018.

Google’s China return like watching grass grow

Chronicling Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) slow march back to China has been a bit like watching grass grow these days. It’s been a painfully slow process, including the latest announcement that the company will open an artificial intelligence (AI) lab here in Beijing.  Put more cynically, one might call this the world’s longest brown-nosing exercise in the brief history of the Internet, due to unique conditions that prompt many to say that Beijing is in some ways creating its own made-in-China 1.1 version of this medium of the 21st century.

That internet version 1.1 includes features like China’s notorious firewall that filters out sites that Beijing doesn’t like for the vast majority of the country’s more than 700 million web surfers. A corollary of that is that anyone who operates an officially-registered website inside China tacitly agrees to abide by the nation’s vague laws that require all operators to self-police their sites for sensitive content. Read Full Post…

E-COMMERCE: Alibaba’s New Retail Goes on Steroids with Grocery Plan

Bottom line: Alibaba’s plan to roll out 2,000 of its high-tech Hema grocery stores looks overly aggressive but typical for the company, and could prove costly if the concept fails to catch on.

Alibaba has big plans for Hema

E-commerce giant Alibaba (NYSE: BABA) is pretty much a carbon copy of its founder Jack Ma when it comes to standing still, in that the concept is completely foreign to both. I’ve been critical of the company in the past for getting into too many things too quickly without a coherent big-picture plan, and that’s what seems to be happening once more with Alibaba’s sudden obsession with finding a formula for the “new retail”.

Alibaba seems quite certain that retailing of the future will consist of some form of high-tech features, alongside traditional retailing concepts such as stores where actual products are sold and people can sit down for a fresh-cooked meal. Alibaba has been wheeling out a number of concepts on this new high-tech retail puzzle over the past year, but the latest plan is the first I’ve seen for an actual widespread roll-out of an actual chain. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Twitter Tweets Indecisively Around China

Bottom line: Twitter’s conservative approach to China reflects a broader indecision at the company that is limiting its growth potential.

Twitter shackled by indecision in China

While social networking giant Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) actively flirts with China in a bid to enter the world’s largest Internet market, the smaller, struggling Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) seems unable to make up its mind. That seems to be the key takeaway from a new interview on the prickly subject of China between Maya Hari, Twitter’s Asia Pacific chief, and Caixin, a well-respected Chinese financial media that also happens to be my current employer.

This particular message seems to be a recurrent theme with Twitter, which, like Facebook, doesn’t like China’s strict self-censorship policies but also finds it hard to ignore such a big market. In Facebook’s case, the company has made it quite clear it’s willing to tolerate China’s self-censorship policies for a chance to build a presence in the market, most likely through a future joint venture with a local partner. Read Full Post…