But in an era when China’s leader, Xi Jinping, emphasizes top-down control, Beijing has shown increasing displeasure with officials and executives in Hangzhou — starting with Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, and extending to others.
Over the weekend, Chinese anti-graft regulators announced that they have launched an investigation into Hangzhou’s party secretary, Zhou Jiangyong, for suspected “disciplinary violations,” an official euphemism for corruption. On Monday, authorities announced a broader anti-graft probe against Hangzhou’s current officials, as well as those who recently retired or resigned, focused on their business activities.
“All city leaders are included, including those that retired or left their jobs in the past three years,” the Hangzhou Municipal Commission for Discipline Inspection said in a statement about the investigation.
The crackdown was accompanied by online rumors that Zhou had invested in a financial technology company before its initial public offering (IPO). The rumors were widespread enough that Ant Group, Alibaba’s financial services affiliate, issued a statement denying that any “relevant persons” had invested. A man who answered the phone at the Hangzhou government’s information office on Monday declined to discuss the case.
Nis Grünberg, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, said China’s wealth redistribution drive was probably a factor in the scrutiny of Hangzhou officials, with the area as a pilot zone for the campaign.
It’s possible the officials were being held up as “an example” of the Chinese Communist Party’s displeasure with politicians’ ties with big business, he said.
Crackdowns on graft have been a steady presence since Xi began his rule in 2012. But the Hangzhou one raised eyebrows, coming after several high-profile events connected to the city.
In November, Chinese regulators abruptly suspended the public listing plans of Ant Group, which was set to be the largest IPO in history. This came after Ant Group and Ma criticized China’s financial regulations in October, saying they stifled innovation.
The case heralded the start of a broader crackdown on China’s high-tech sector, with ride-hailing king Didi Chuxing and online gaming giant Tencent also drawing official scrutiny. Alibaba’s New York-listed shares are at a two-year low.
Then in April, three leopards escaped from a safari park in Hangzhou, and only two were retrieved. While the incident initially seemed an amusing diversion, it drew further negative attention from Beijing’s top leaders to Hangzhou’s governance as weeks passed with a large cat on the loose. The third leopard remains missing.
In the new Hangzhou corruption investigation, authorities said they are scrutinizing the business links of local officials and their families, without giving further details. Major Chinese companies almost universally work closely with local governments, because of the heavy presence of state planning in the nation’s economy, and such ties are often complex.
Local media outlets over the weekend reported on Zhou’s friendly working relationship with Ma over the years, as rumors circulated that he invested in a company that fit the profile of Ant Group. Ant Group said in its statement that the rumors were untrue and that it had strictly followed the law.
Xi has put the nation’s wealthy on alert this year, pushing a “common prosperity” campaign to decrease income inequality in the country. Major high-tech companies have been a particular target, with the Chinese Communist Party concerned about the enormous amounts of data and influence they have amassed. The official response has prompted scrambles in China’s tech industry to get on the good side of regulators, who are more closely scrutinizing any potential ill-gotten gains.
Tencent moved quickly, announcing a $7.7 billion “common prosperity” fund last week. Companies, including Alibaba, had pledged multimillion-dollar donations earlier this summer to alleviate the historic flooding in central China.
The crackdown has echoes of the one Xi carried out shortly after he became China’s leader, although that time, the focus was on powerful state-owned enterprises instead of high-tech companies.
The state-owned Zhejiang Daily newspaper reported that provincial officials held a meeting Saturday night to announce the investigation of Zhou.
“Cherish your own ethics as you cherish your life,” the officials were told at the meeting.
Lyric Li contributed to this report.