On August 23, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced an anti-corruption investigation targeting Zhou Jiangyong, the party secretary of Hangzhou. Hangzhou is the city where the famous tech monolith Alibaba and its subsidiary Ant Group are headquartered, and Zhou’s fall is reportedly associated with scandals of his family members covertly holding a great amount of Ant Group’s shares.
The news certainly deals another blow to Alibaba’s already precarious position. Since the $37 billion IPO of Ant Group, predicted to be the largest IPO in the world if successful, was abruptly suspended by regulators last November, Alibaba and its founder Jack Ma have been continuously under enormous political pressure. Some observers attribute Alibaba’s current predicament to Ma’s defiant attacks on the financial regulators of China before the IPO. Others describe Alibaba’s experience more generally as an example of the crackdown on the private sector by the Chinese Communist Party, which is increasingly reasserting control over the economy.
However, very few have elaborated how exactly Alibaba and its mobile payment system, Alipay, might generate financial risks, and what specific problems they create for the regulators. Nor do many link Alibaba’s drama to another hot spot: the issuance of digital renminbi by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC). In fact, as this article will try to illustrate, the two stories are deeply related. The tension between Alibaba and the monetary authority of China lies in the nature of a privately operated mobile payment system.
In the early 2010s, Alipay, originally a payment processor that Alibaba created to facilitate online shopping transactions, grew into the largest mobile payment platform in the world, thanks to the widespread use of smartphones in China. Alipay significantly improves the efficiency and convenience of money transactions: People who put money in their Alipay accounts simply use their smartphones to scan each other’s QR code, and the transactions will be immediately processed, exempting them from the troubles of using cash or cards. If they want, they can also withdraw the money back to any bank account they choose to link with Alipay at any time. Gradually, people from all walks of life in China started using Alipay for their daily monetary transactions. In restaurants, shopping malls, or supermarkets, one can see Alipay’s QR code everywhere. It is no wonder that some exclaim that in China even beggars accept Alipay.
Behind the pervasive use of Alipay, however, is a thrillingly delicate financial arrangement. In China, the fiat currency is renminbi (RMB), whose supply is exclusively controlled by PBOC. Things become a little different if a person puts RMB in her Alipay account and uses it for transactions. When this person scans the QR code and transfers a set number to another Alipay account, she has every reason to believe that she is using RMB – but she is not. Instead, Alipay users are transferring a currency issued by Alibaba, whose exchange rate with the RMB happens to be 1:1. What endorses this invisible currency and maintains the 1:1 exchange rate is Alibaba’s own RMB reserves.
If this sounds confusing, then just imagine the most extreme scenario – if Alibaba goes bankrupt. The numbers in an Alipay account would be worth nothing. Users would not be able to convert those numbers back to RMB, unless the government intervenes.
To those familiar with monetary theories, this should come as no surprise. They would say that the numbers in an Alipay account constitute what economists call “checkable deposits,” which are part of the monetary supply that any normal commercial bank can influence. Therefore, they do not distinguish using Alipay from swiping a debit card issued by a bank, except the former requires a QR code while the latter a POS machine. This argument may be true in theory, but three problems complicate the situation of Alipay in reality.
The first, and the most obvious, problem is that Alibaba is not a commercial bank, and therefore not covered by the conventional regulatory system that applies to banking. While a commercial bank must face scrutiny by the central bank and other financial regulators –for example, regularly reporting its reserves – Alibaba as a tech company is free from such supervision. Hence, by managing a mobile payment system without much constraint, Alibaba has gained a dangerous privilege in the financial system. The central bank is understandably concerned about it. What if Alibaba began to manipulate its currency through the Alipay system by, for instance, boosting some people’s Alipay accounts to curry favor with them? The numbers can be created out of thin air without being backed by real RMB, but they have real purchasing power. China’s regulators would not be able to detect or stop such irregularities in time.
The second problem, not surprisingly, is Alipay’s extreme popularity. PBOC must be ill at ease with the massive use of a private mobile payment system. After all, how can the monetary authority uses its policies to effectively maintain financial and economic stability if the majority of grassroot transactions in China take place through a non-RMB currency? It is totally foreseeable that, left unchecked, the business of Alipay will continue to grow, and one day the central bank might need Alibaba’s support or even approval in order to achieve its monetary policy objectives. PBOC cannot tolerate such a possibility.
The third problem, unique in the context of China, is that Alibaba is not state-owned. The Chinese government has much weaker control over tech companies like Alibaba than over financial institutes such as the “Big Five” banks. What makes things worse is that Alibaba has gone public in the United States, so any global investor can become a shareholder of Alibaba and therefore (in theory, at least) have a say in the operation of the company. Through this mechanism, it is possible for foreign powers to influence the Alipay system. There is no doubt that Chinese financial regulators are growing more vigilant about such risks as the political relationship between China and the United States keeps deteriorating.
PBOC is aware of these problems, but it does not have the option of rolling back the already full-fledged mobile payment. Using mobile payment has already become a business norm in China, and reversing it would likely inflict substantial pain on the economy and cause unnecessary panic. So how can PBOC encounter the financial risks of mobile payment while simultaneously leave its benefits intact? An intuitive solution emerges: PBOC should issue and promote its own mobile payment system.
Thus, it is no coincidence that China, as the largest market of mobile payments, also becomes the first major economy in the world to implement a digital sovereign currency. Publicly, the central bank always depicted the issuance of the digital RMB as a preemptive move against the surging popularity of foreign digital currencies such as Bitcoin. However, according to people familiar with the matter from the state-owned banks authorized to promote digital RMB, a clear goal of PBOC was to weaken the oligarchy status of private mobile payments in the market. However, to the surprise of many, PBOC eventually chose to incorporate Alipay as one of the issuance platforms. By turning competition into integration, PBOC is obviously attempting to merge private mobile payments into its own system and effectively regain control over monetary supply.
While PBOC is trying a market-friendly solution, Alibaba and its leader’s own words and deeds turned things into a bad direction. It is widely reported that Alibaba refused to share customer information with the government, an uncooperative attitude that would certainly be interpreted by the monetary authority as arrogant and threatening. In addition, as already noted, Jack Ma publicly accused the Chinese government of overregulation over the financial sector, tempting PBOC to impose some real regulations. All these developments worsened the innate conflict between Alibaba and PBOC, which finally boiled over when Alibaba wanted to further consolidate its grip on the financial sector by through Ant Group’s IPO.
Now the political wind is against Alibaba and will continue to be so. No matter how much ground Alibaba concedes, the inherent tension between a private mobile payment system and a public monetary authority does not easily go away. As long as PBOC pushes forward its digital RMB, Alipay, as well as other private mobile payments, will have no choice but to be integrated into one state-controlled mobile payment system. What remains to be seen is just how painful that transition will be.