If you want to understand how cooling relations between America and China are changing global business, a good place to look is Alibaba, an internet giant. It is China’s most admired and valuable firm, worth a cool $400bn. For the past five years it has also been a hybrid that straddles the superpowers, because its shares are listed only in America. Now it is considering a $20bn flotation in Hong Kong, according to Bloomberg. The backdrop is a rising risk of American moves against Chinese interests and the growing clout of Hong Kong’s capital markets. A listing there would be a sign that Chinese firms are taking out insurance to lower their dependence on Western finance.
The world looked very different back in 2014, when Alibaba first went public. Although based in Hangzhou and with 91% of its sales in mainland China, it chose to list its shares in New York, home to the world’s deepest capital markets, which also permitted its complex voting structure. Wall Street banks underwrote the offering. Alibaba’s boss, Jack Ma, already a star in China, was toasted in Manhattan high society as the kind of freewheeling capitalist Americans could do business with. He was not alone: 174 other Chinese firms have their main listing in America today, with a total market value of $394bn, including tech stars like Baidu and jd.com. A recent notable arrival is Luckin Coffee, a Starbucks wannabe, which floated for $4bn in May (see article).