Alibaba enlists academics in lobbying effort to restore reputation

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Alibaba has been paying academics to lobby Chinese authorities to relax regulations and rehabilitate its reputation as the ecommerce group attempts to navigate Beijing’s tech crackdown.

Chinese scholars involved in Alibaba’s lobbying operation published essays and submitted reports in support of the company to authorities in Beijing, including the State Administration for Market Regulation, which hit the group with a record fine for antitrust abuses in 2021.

Alibaba provided the scholars with money, data, information and interview opportunities to bolster their research, according to more than 10 academics, government officials and company employees who spoke to the Financial Times. The company also promised to fund some scholars’ research projects.

“Alibaba’s lobbying muscle is top-notch among the internet giants,” said a Beijing-based scholar, speaking on condition of anonymity. “When [they] came to my door . . . I could hardly say no.”

The group’s academic push comes as the company tries to recover from a regulatory assault that has wiped billions from its market value, with its share price down more than 60 per cent since its peak in October 2020.

The effort reveals how tech groups in China are working to fend off Beijing’s crackdown on the tech sector. This month Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba, ceded control of its fintech affiliate Ant Group, clearing the way for an IPO that was blocked by Beijing three years ago.

Academics in China can function as intermediaries between the private sector and government, helping shape policy and positions through drafting public papers or submitting reports, which are usually not published, for high-ranking party officials within the Communist party.

Alibaba’s teams worked with the scholars to produce reports with favourable commentary on its business and societal contributions, people familiar with the campaign told the FT. The Hangzhou-based group, like other Chinese tech companies, has also hired former government officials to interact with policymakers on its behalf.

“Regulators’ knowledge of internet companies did not stay up to date with their development, so they called on academics to accelerate their learning curve,” said a Beijing-based researcher paid by Alibaba who drafts in-house policy proposals for authorities. Scholars carry “a great deal of clout” on government decision-making, he said.

Four of the reports, which were obtained by the FT and whose authors said they took money from Alibaba, propose relaxing regulation of the company. These essays were published in Chinese academic journals and also submitted in some form to government officials with the goal of influencing policy, according to the authors.

Other reports by academics highlighted how Alibaba’s technology and operational capabilities were helping expand small businesses and ecommerce-related industries, with the goal of restoring the company’s damaged profile after the antitrust investigation.

Alibaba “created new growth and innovation for the digital economy” during the pandemic, said one of the reports submitted to SAMR. The report concluded with a suggestion that regulators “should stimulate companies like Alibaba to drive the economy”.

Another report highlighted that Alibaba made “poverty eradication a core strategy of the company”, helping to develop and expand businesses and industries in rural areas.

Other articles reviewed the antitrust investigation process against Alibaba, arguing that the company had many competitive rivals and so it was not necessary for regulators to take more action against the company.

“I was persuaded by the employees of Alibaba and the information they provided,” said one academic who acts as a government adviser.

“[The reports I submitted suggested that] the current regulation and controls are too harsh, after considering the social impact and the real harm of Alibaba’s behaviours,” the government adviser added.

After providing details of the FT’s findings, Alibaba said in response that the story “was based on a misleading premise and [the] FT had only provided to us dubious information implying unfounded allegations of impropriety.” 

Angela Zhang, an antitrust expert and professor at the University of Hong Kong, said that all Chinese tech giants have resorted to Chinese academics to exert influence on the legislative and enforcement process.

“Internet companies lobbied aggressively against the early drafts [of policies] and recruited support from academia by funding scholars’ projects and conferences,” Zhang wrote in an essay that was published in a US journal in 2021 and revised last year.

“Being able to impact government officials is important,” said Zeren Li, a state-business relations research and postdoctoral associate at Yale University. Li said that in the Chinese academic system, pursuing endorsement from high-ranking officials was as significant as publishing in top journals.

“Now is the best time for Alibaba to patch up ties with regulators as Beijing is mobilising every force to energise the Chinese economy,” said an official with ties to the tech group.

Big Tech companies in the US, such as Meta and Google, have also funded academic work, think-tank research and journalistic projects in an effort to burnish their public image.

There are signs that Beijing may be relaxing its stance on Alibaba. Chief executive Daniel Zhang featured in a state media broadcast last weekend, proclaiming that the company’s growth targets “are congruent and consistent with” Chinese national social development goals.

Yi Lianhong, the party secretary of Alibaba’s home province of Zhejiang, visited the company’s headquarters last month — the first such call in two years — after a conference in Beijing on reviving the platform economy.

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