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SHANGHAI/HONG KONG -China slapped a record 18 billion yuan ($2.75 billion) fine on Alibaba Group Holding Ltd on Saturday, after an anti-monopoly probe found the e-commerce giant had abused its dominant market position for several years.
The fine, about 4% of Alibaba's 2019 China revenues, comes amid a crackdown on technology conglomerates and indicates antitrust law enforcement on internet platforms has entered a new era in China after years of laissez-faire approach.
The Alibaba business empire has particularly come under intense scrutiny in China since its billionaire founder Jack Ma's stinging public criticism of the country's regulatory system in October.
A month later, authorities scuttled a planned $37 billion IPO by Ant Group, Alibaba's internet finance arm, and then China's State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) announced its antitrust probe into the company in December.
While the fine brings Alibaba a step closer to resolving its antitrust woes, Ant still needs to agree to a regulatory-driven revamp that is expected to sharply cut its valuations and rein in some of its freewheeling businesses.
"This penalty will be viewed as a closure to the anti-monopoly case for now by the market. It's indeed the highest profile anti-monopoly case in China," said Hong Hao, head of research BOCOM International in Hong Kong.
"The market has been anticipating some sort of penalty for some time ... but people need to pay attention to the measures beyond the anti-monopoly investigation."
The SAMR said it had determined that Alibaba had been "abusing market dominance" since 2015 by preventing its merchants from using other online e-commerce platforms.
The practice, which the SAMR has previously spelt out as illegal, violates China's anti-monopoly law by hindering the free circulation of goods and infringing on the business interests of merchants, the regulator added.
It has ordered Alibaba to make "thorough rectifications" to strengthen internal compliance and protect consumer rights.
Alibaba said in a statement that it accepts the penalty and "will ensure its compliance with determination".
The company will hold a conference call on Monday to discuss the penalty decision.
"We will tackle it openly and work through it together," CEO Daniel Zhang said in a memo to staff seen by Reuters. "Let's improve ourselves and start again together as one."
The fine imposed on Alibaba is more than double the $975 million paid in China by Qualcomm, the world's biggest supplier of mobile phone chips, in 2015 for anticompetitive practices.
"There has been weakness in China's big tech stocks and I think this fine will be seen as a benchmark for any other penalties which could be applied to the other companies," said Louis Tse, managing director at Wealthy Securities in Hong Kong.