China has ordered its domestic media to restrict their reporting on an antitrust probe into Alibaba, as speculation over the future of one of the country’s largest corporations intensified, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

A directive issued by the government’s propaganda arm toward the end of 2020 ordered news outlets to strictly echo the official line on the investigation into the tech giant and prohibited them from engaging in original reporting and extended analysis or drawing their own conclusions without authorisation, according to the people, who asked not to be identified as the order had not been made public. The restrictions also applied to Jack Ma, the company’s co-founder, the people said.

Authorities in Beijing regularly issue propaganda directives and guidelines to domestic media organisations to further the government’s policy objectives. The Financial Times earlier reported the directive on Alibaba, saying that it signalled how the issue had become a matter of national political sensitivity.

Billionaire Ma’s empire has become the most prominent target of China’s campaign against the technology industry, which as so far torpedoed affiliate Ant’s $35bn initial public offering and led to an antitrust investigation at his e-commerce giant. Ma, who hasn’t been seen in public for months, has been advised by the government to stay in the country, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News. Several online blogs that speculated about his whereabouts have been censored, according to the FT.

“It’s because the government does not want to see two things: one is people questioning the overreaching intervention, the other is people lashing out at the private sector and discouraging China’s economic engine,” said Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

At one media company, the restrictions were applied to Chinese language outlets, but not its English language journalists, one person said.

In addition to restricting access to global sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, authorities in Beijing have long exerted tight control over domestic news coverage of topics deemed to be politically sensitive. During the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, social media platforms were scrubbed of posts critical of the government, while information about the Hong Kong protests in 2019 were wiped from the internet even as state media blamed US interference.

An Alibaba-backed media platform that published an editorial warning against excessive punishment of China’s tech giants was made to halt its operations for a month, the FT reported.

Alibaba did not immediately reply to queries for comment.



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