China Widens Probe Beyond Didi, Roiling Global Investors

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China expanded its latest crackdown on the technology industry beyond Didi Global Inc. to include two other companies that recently listed in New York, dealing a blow to global investors while tightening the government’s grip on sensitive online data.

In a series of announcements that began on Friday and escalated over a holiday weekend in the U.S., Beijing ordered all three companies to halt new user registrations and told app stores to remove Didi’s service from their platforms. The regulatory onslaught came just days after the ride-hailing giant completed one of the biggest U.S. listings of the past decade and within weeks of debuts by the other targeted companies -- Full Truck Alliance Co. and Kanzhun Ltd.

Investors responded by dumping Chinese tech stocks in Hong Kong and sending shares of SoftBank Group Corp., a backer of both Didi and Full Truck, to a seven-month low in Tokyo. Didi, which tumbled 5.3% on Friday, could extend losses when trading resumes in the U.S. on Tuesday.

China Widens Probe Beyond Didi, Roiling Global Investors

While China watchers have been on high alert for regulatory shocks since Beijing scuttled Jack Ma’s IPO of Ant Group Co. in November, the move against Didi and its peers adds a new dimension -- cybersecurity -- to a clampdown that has so far focused on fintech and antitrust issues. The Communist Party-backed Global Times said in a Monday column that Didi’s data hoard posed a threat to individual privacy as well as national security, particularly since its top two shareholders -- SoftBank and Uber Technologies Inc. -- were foreign.

Beijing’s targeting of recent U.S. listings may chill the pipeline of overseas IPOs that have enriched Wall Street and private Chinese firms alike. That could in turn fuel concerns of an economic decoupling between China and the U.S., at least in sensitive areas like technology, as both Xi Jinping and Joe Biden take steps to limit the flow of capital and expertise between the two superpowers. Helping tech companies sell shares in New York has been a lucrative business for firms like Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, both of which were key underwriters of the Didi IPO.

Among the questions still lingering for global investors, Chinese tech bosses and U.S. regulators: Which companies might enter Beijing’s crosshairs next? And in Didi’s case, should investors have been given more explicit warnings about China’s clampdown before the IPO?

“Didi seems to have rushed up their IPO process, indicating that there might be early signs of upcoming government scrutiny,” said Shen Meng, director of Beijing-based boutique investment bank Chanson & Co. “The Didi probe, together with the other investigations announced today, show how the tensions between China and the U.S. are spilling over into the capital markets. The incident will suppress Chinese companies’ desire to go public in the U.S.”

Didi said in an emailed statement on Monday that it was unaware of the Chinese watchdog’s decision to suspend user registrations and remove Didi Chuxing from app stores ahead of its listing.

China Widens Probe Beyond Didi, Roiling Global Investors

Didi undoubtedly has the most detailed travel information on individuals among large internet firms and appears to have the ability to conduct “big data analysis” of individual behaviors and habits, the Global Times wrote Monday. To protect personal data as well as national security, China must be even stricter in its oversight of Didi’s data security, given that it’s listed in the U.S. and its two largest shareholders are foreign companies, the newspaper added.

“We must never let any internet giant control a super database that has more detailed personal information than the state, let alone giving it the right to use the data at will,” the Global Times said in the commentary. While it’s not clear how Didi illegally collected personal data, companies should gather the least amount of information required for their services, it added.

The probe is part of a wider crackdown on China’s largest internet corporations, as the government seeks to tighten the ownership and handling of the troves of information they gather daily from hundreds of millions of users. As part of the reviews, the Cyberspace Administration of China ordered Didi, Full Truck Alliance’s Huochebang and Yunmanman platforms, as well as Kanzhun’s Boss Zhipin to halt new registrations, though existing customers can continue to use their services.

For more on China’s latest crackdown

On Sunday, Didi said on social media that it had already halted new user registrations as of July 3 and was now working to rectify its app in accordance with regulatory requirements. It offered its sincere thanks to authorities for their oversight. In a follow-up statement, Didi said the regulatory move may have “an adverse impact” on its revenue in China.

The investigation comes hot on the heels of Didi’s float, which listed on Wednesday in New York after a $4.4 billion IPO -- the largest by a Chinese firm in the U.S. after Alibaba. SoftBank owned roughly 20% of Didi following the listing, while Uber’s stake was about 12%, according to an earlier Didi filing. Founder Cheng Wei owned about 6.5%, just ahead of the 6.4% held by Tencent. SoftBank sank 5.4% in Tokyo trading Monday to the lowest since Dec. 8.

Didi’s key shareholders% of equity ownership% of aggregate voting power
SoftBank Vision Fund20.2%10.7%
Uber12.0%6.4%
Cheng Wei6.5%35.5%
Tencent6.4%3.4%
Jean Liu1.6%22.8%

Even before the CAC’s crackdown, Didi had been under close scrutiny from regulators since a pair of murders in 2018 that founder Cheng has called the firm’s “darkest days.” It was among 34 firms told by the antitrust watchdog to conduct self-inspections and rectify abuses, while the transport ministry had ordered ride-hailing companies including Didi to review their practices relating to driver income and pricing.

China Widens Probe Beyond Didi, Roiling Global Investors

Full Truck Alliance, backed by Tencent, is little changed since it raised $1.6 billion in a June 21 listing. Kanzhun, also part of Tencent’s investment portfolio, has nearly doubled after its $912 million IPO. Other firms that listed in the U.S. last month as part of a boom in Chinese companies selling shares overseas include grocery services MissFresh Ltd. and DingDong Cayman Ltd.

Other tech stocks fell in Hong Kong trading Monday. Tencent retreated as much as 4.5%, touching its lowest level this year. Alibaba sank more than 3%, while Meituan and Kuaishou Technology, a short video streaming platform that listed in the Asian financial center earlier this year, tumbled more than 7%.

“It’s clear that there’s a regulatory overhang on China’s tech giants at the moment and that may continue to weigh on sector valuations for the large internet platforms,” according to Matthew Kanterman, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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