Politburo meeting calls for "reinforcing anti-monopoly and prevent capital from expanding in a disorderly fashion"
Chinese Big Tech better be aware
The meeting demands to 强化反垄断和防止资本无序扩张 reinforce anti-monopoly and prevent capital from expanding in a disorderly fashion.
Albeit brief, it is an unprecedented, strongly-worded, and pointed statement that has never been seen from such a high-level political platform.
The key is to understand the usage of 资本 capital within the current Chinese context.
A few days ago, the head of the Information Office of China’s State Council/cabinet said in a public forum that (we will) 坚决防范资本操纵舆论的风险 resolutely prevent the risk of capital manipulation of public opinion.
Tsinghua University journalism Professors Shen Yang and Chen Hui published an analysis on why that is necessary on the Chinese-language web site of Global Times, writing
Once certain capitals that control commercial platforms such as social media, search engines, and (online) review communities abuse the monopoly advantage of their platforms, the manipulation of public opinion conducted by them is more concealed and more harmful. Therefore, more attention should be paid to preventing the risk of capital manipulation of public opinion.
Some platform operators damage the credibility and exposure of other market entities and the legitimate rights and interests of the public by means of downgrading search results, Internet traffic restrictions, paid deletion of Internet posts, manipulation of comments, etc., which undermines the fair competitive market environment.
Social media, information clients, short videos, search engines, and other commercial platforms have become the main information window and life infrastructure for the general public. All kinds of commercial platforms are not only market subjects, but also have the attributes of social public goods. From small product and store reviews to large public events and public media reports, the presentation, recommendation, and ranking all concern public interest.
If there is capital to interfere and manipulate the information flow and influence public perception through the monopoly position of the platform, it will deteriorate the social information environment, undermine social trust, reduce the public's enthusiasm to participate in public discussion, and lead to the proliferation of so-called "post-truth" thinking, magnifying social differences and intensifying social fragmentation.
There, you get the idea of how to understand the term capital in media within the current Chinese context. And if you are familiar with the picture of Chinese Big Tech, you can even name the companies one by one. (Your Pekingnologist doesn’t want to get sued here.)
Also, recently there is the story of Internet-based WeWork-like apartment-renting platform Danke/Eggshell going bust and putting many young people on the verge of eviction. The bust has been widely described, fairly or not, as capital damaging people’s livelihoods because its failure in running the apartment-renting business ended up in evictions.
Also, a few Big Tech now effectively controls the large trunk of Internet space in China. It has also been widely reported that Chinese Big Tech is very good at spotting promising start-ups at a very early stage and buying in early rounds of financing.
There is a theory going that, if unchecked, with their huge amount of cash on hand, they can afford to buy their way into future Internet-based innovations, or just copy new models promptly and crash newborn competitors with money and/or targeted Internet traffic.
What would you call the behaviors described in the paragraphs above? Maybe expanding in a disorderly fashion, to effectively almost every corner of society given the Internet is everywhere now.
Against this backdrop, and similar usage of the word capital in other scenarios in recent weeks, the word capital in Friday’s Politburo meeting readout appears very pointed.
In China, just like in the U.S. and EU, there have been long-standing concerns over a very small number of Big Tech dominating the entire Internet. Whereas U.S. Big Tech has successfully lobbied against regulatory crackdown from Washington, Brussels has been much less lenient under Margrethe Vestager.
The EU’s focus may be summarized as Big Tech stifling innovation, avoiding proper tax payment, and doing less than enough in preventing disinformation. Similar concerns - and perhaps some more - are now on the mind of Beijing.