The Big Ideas

by Malcolm Riddell

'A 1,100-Year-Old Poem Cost Meituan’s Outspoken CEO US $2.5 Billions'

Bloomberg

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May 10, 2021
'A 1,100-Year-Old Poem Cost Meituan’s Outspoken CEO US $2.5 Billions'
'A 1,100-Year-Old Poem Cost Meituan’s Outspoken CEO US $2.5 Billions'
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BIG IDEA | ‘On Monday, because of an 1,100-year old poem about events 2,200 years ago posted by the founder of food delivery giant Meituan, investors panicked, and sank the company’s market cap by $15.6 billion. And Meituan CEO Wang Xing, who posted the poem, lost $2.5 billion of his wealth.’

Throughout most (all?) of Chinese history, criticizing the leader (until the last 100 years or so, that was the emperor) has been a risky business.

  • Punishments ranged from rebuke to death.

So from early times, the Chinese developed indirect ways of making their points – that have the advantage of plausible deniability.

Foremost among these is quoting an old poem that seems to nothing to do with the current regime.

  • But it does: think, political commentary by allusion.

Because of the long use of poetry in this way, officials, as well as ordinary people, are always on alert.

Here’s the latest in a long history.

  • It underscores how what you need to understand - and watch for, and worry over - about business and investment in the Chinese context is much different from what we're used to in the west.

‘On Monday, May 10, because of an 1,100-year old poem about events 2,200 years ago posted by the founder of food delivery giant Meituan, investors panicked, and sank the company’s market cap by $15.6 billion.’

  • ‘And Meituan CEO Wang Xing, who posted the poem, lost $2.5 billion of his wealth.’

‘The short, 28-character poem was about the infamous book burnings by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.’

  • ‘According to official historical records in China, Qin quashed dissent by digging huge pits and burning books that were not approved by his government, and well as burying scholars to discourage people from critiquing his rule.’

‘The poet Zhang Jie’s sarcasm is clear: all that repression was pointless because the real danger to the Qin Dynasty was not from intellectuals but from illiterate warriors like Liu Bang, whose Han dynasty would soon replace the Qin.’

  • ‘Part of the poem read: “Before the ashes turned cold, rebellion had arisen east of the mountains.” ’

‘Investors worried that chief executive Wang Xing was using ancient poetry to complain about the ongoing anti-trust regulatory crackdown and to make a veiled comparison of the ruthless ancient emperor and China’s current authoritarian government.’

  • ‘It is impossible for fund managers to miss the danger in reciting the poem: Wang could land himself and the company in a precarious spot - just as Ma did to his company and himself in Shanghai last year, when he criticized China's conventional, state-controlled banks for having a "pawn shop" mentality and financial regulators for using outdated methods.’
  • ‘Ma's speech appeared to anger officials in Beijing, and a world record IPO for Alibaba affiliate Ant Group was pulled at the last minute.’

Meituan already had enough to worry about.

  • ‘Last month, the State Administration for Market Regulation, emboldened by a $2.8 billion record fine on Alibaba, launched an investigation into Meituan as well.’
  • ‘As of last Friday, even before Wang published the poem, Meituan’s Hong Kong-listed shares had tumbled by about a third from a mid-February high, as investors prepared for billion-dollar fines for the delivery giant.’

‘Wang has deleted the post and clarified his intentions, saying the ancient poem reminded him that the most dangerous corporate competitors were usually not the expected ones.’

  • ‘But the damage was done.’

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Malcolm Riddell
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