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Monday, Apr 19, 2021

Alibaba is back in Beijing's good books for helping to fix poverty

Alibaba is back in Beijing's good books for helping to fix poverty

Jack Ma's tech empire may still be facing tough new regulations in China, but Alibaba seems to have won at least a little bit of favor this week from President Xi Jinping.
Alibaba was one of hundreds of companies that Xi commended on Thursday during a ceremony intended to bolster his years-long campaign to wipe out extreme poverty in the country.

Alibaba is a "model" of "national poverty alleviation," according to the certificate it received from the government. The company posted the certification on its Weibo account.

The company also received kudos for its efforts from Chinese state media, which this week called attention to Alibaba's efforts to help farmers sell some $155 billion worth of agricultural products through its e-commerce websites in support of Xi's campaign. State-run China Youth Daily published a report on Wednesday praising the company for its innovations, such as using AI algorithms to help farmers raise chicken, helping people sell agricultural products through live-streaming, providing education and training to poor women in the countryside, and extending loans to rural regions through its online banking services.

The government-backed praise is welcome news for Alibaba and Ma, which for months have been caught up in an intensifying crackdown by Beijing on the country's tech sector, including an anti-trust investigation.

The e-commerce giant's financial tech affiliate, Ant Group, is also expected to undergo major restructuring to satisfy regulators who are concerned about its vast reach in digital payments and finance. Ant's highly anticipated IPO was called off late last year after Ma criticized Chinese regulators.

The criticism of Ma in particular — who had not been seen in public for months before he briefly reemerged in January — even appeared to make its way into state media. Last month, he was left off a list of major Chinese business leaders compiled by the Shanghai Securities Journal.

And late last year, The People's Daily — the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party — published an opinion piece urging tech firms to take more responsibility and focus less on short-term results.

"Internet giants with massive amounts of data and advanced algorithms should have more responsibility, more aspirations, and more accomplishments in technological innovation," the piece read.

Alibaba "is privileged to have participated in [the anti-poverty campaign]," Alibaba wrote in a Weibo post Thursday.

Toeing the party line has a lot of benefits for Alibaba. Xi made clear last September that he expected private companies to support the work of the Communist Party.

Tech firms contributing to Xi's anti-poverty campaign are fulfilling their obligation of "serving the state," according to Alex Capri, a research fellow at Hinrich Foundation and a visiting senior fellow at National University of Singapore.

"This reflects well upon the party and wins support," he added. "As long as Big Tech is seen to be in proper alignment with the [Party's] nationalist message, they will be spared further public chastisement."

Even so, Capri cautioned that the praise for Alibaba this week "is not a contradiction of the Chinese Communist Party's hard line against Big Tech."

He still expects that the government will continue its crackdown, which is fueled by concerns that tech firms have too much influence over China's financial system. Several media outlets have reported that Ant, for example, has agreed with authorities to become a financial holding company — a move that could force it to scale down its aspirations to be a dominant force in the tech world.
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