China Launches Antitrust Probe Into Tencent-Backed Property Broker Ke

The investigation is the latest into China’s big so-called “platform” companies that match sellers and buyers, several of which have been accused by regulators of exploiting consumers.

KE Holdings, which operates housing platforms Lianjia and Beike in China, was warned last month by the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), along with dozens of internet companies, against any abuse of market dominance and told to conduct self-inspections.

SAMR has been formally investigating in recent weeks whether KE Holdings forces real estate developers to list housing information only on its platforms, including Lianjia and Beike, a tactic known as “choose one from two”, the people said, declining to be named because the information is not public.

The investigation has not been publicly announced. It is not known when it will be wrapped up or what it could entail for KE Holdings.

KE Holdings declined to comment to Reuters but in a later statement on its Chinese social media accounts Beike denied that “SAMR had opened a case against Beike”.

SAMR did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

KE’s New York-listed shares fell as much as nearly 10% in pre-market trading on Tuesday, after the Reuters report.

Graphic: KE Holdings shares – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/qzjpqbbjevx/image-1621913862223.png

Last month, SAMR hit Alibaba Group with a record $2.8 billion fine after finding that the e-commerce giant had been preventing its merchants from using other online e-commerce platforms since 2015.

Tencent itself is in the firing line, with SAMR preparing to levy a fine of at least $1.5 billion on the gaming and social media behemoth, Reuters reported in April. SAMR also announced an investigation last month into Tencent-backed food delivery giant Meituan.

SAMR has stationed inspectors since late April in 17 companies that operate platforms, including KE Holdings, to enhance the efficiency of antitrust inspections, one of the sources said.

KE Holdings, which also counts SoftBank Group Corp among its major backers, launched Lianjia, formerly known as Beijing Homelink Real Estate Brokerage, 20 years ago.

It grew into one of China’s largest bricks-and-mortar property agents and later set up Beike as a separate online housing platform matching buyers and sellers, renters and landlords, as well as providing home finance.

It listed in New York in August, and after sharp gains last year the shares are down 15% so far in 2021. Still, it has a market value of about $62 billion.

On top of the antitrust probe, KE Holdings faces uncertainty following the death last week of its 50-year-old founder and chairman, Zuo Hui, due to an illness. Co-founder Peng Yongdong was appointed chairman this week.

Its biggest revenue sources are from existing home and new home transactions, with market shares of 26% and 35%, respectively, of gross transaction volume in 2020, according to TF Securities, a relatively high proportion in China’s fragmented housing market. KE Holdings posted stellar first quarter financial results last week, with net revenue up 191% on the year, bolstered byChina’s robust property market that quickly rebounded last yearfrom the coronavirus crisis.

(Reporting by Yingzhi Yang, Cheng Leng and Tony Munroe in Beijing; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Louise Heavens)

Exclusive: China’s Tencent in Talks with U.S. to Keep Gaming Investments

By Echo Wang and Greg Roumeliotis

Tencent has been in talks with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which has the authority to order the Chinese technology giant to divest U.S. holdings, since the second half of last year, the sources said.

CFIUS has been looking in to whether Epic Games’ and Riot Games’ handling of the personal data of their users constitutes a national security risk because of their Chinese ownership, the sources added.

Tencent owns a 40% stake in Epic Games, the maker of popular video game Fortnite. Tencent also bought a majority stake in Riot Games in 2011 and acquired the rest of the company in 2015. Riot Games is the developer of “League of Legends,” one of the world’s most popular desktop-based games.

Tencent is negotiating risk-mitigation measures with CFIUS so it can keep its investments, according to the sources. The details of the proposed measures could not be learned. They typically involve ringfencing the owner of a company from operations that have national security implications. They often call for the appointment of independent auditors to monitor the implementation of these agreements.

One of the sources said Epic Games has not been sharing any user data with Tencent.

The sources cautioned there is no certainty that Tencent will clinch deals to keep its investments and asked not to be identified because the matter is confidential.

Tencent, Epic Games and a CFIUS representative at the U.S. Treasury Department declined to comment.

A Riot Games spokesman said the Los Angeles-based company operates independently of Tencent and that it has implemented “industry-leading practices” to protect player data. He declined to comment on Riot Games’ discussions with CFIUS.

CFIUS has been cracking down on Chinese ownership of U.S. technology assets in the last few years, amid an escalation in tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade, human rights and the protection of intellectual property. U.S. officials have expressed concerns that the personal data of U.S. citizens could end up in the hands of China’s Communist Party government.

President Joe Biden’s administration has maintained the hawkish stance against China inherited in January from his predecessor Donald Trump, albeit with more of a focus on geopolitical issues such as the future of Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as China’s persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Yet many key CFIUS roles have not yet been staffed. This has provided a reprieve to China’s ByteDance, which was ordered by Trump last year to sell its popular short video app TikTok but balked at a transaction that would have involved Oracle Corp and Walmart Inc. CFIUS has not sought to enforce the divestiture order under Biden.

Epic is locked in a legal fight with Apple Inc over access to the iPhone maker’s app store. It alleges that Apple forces developers to use its in-app payment systems – which charge commissions of up to 30% – and to submit to app-review guidelines that discriminate against products that compete with Apple’s own.

Apple argues that Epic Games broke their contract when it introduced its own in-app payment system in Fortnite to circumvent Apple’s commissions. It says the way it runs the app store inspires trust in consumers to open up their wallets to unknown developers.

Tencent’s vast businesses include video games, content streaming, social media, advertising and cloud services. China has in recent months sought to curb the economic and social power of Tencent and other internet companies such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, in a clampdown backed by President Xi Jinping. Reuters reported last week that Beijing was preparing a substantial antitrust fine for Tencent.

(Reporting by Echo Wang in Miami and Greg Roumeliotis in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)