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Ant Financial Is the New Face of the Chinese Government’s Big VC Bet

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Alibaba executive chairman Jack MaPhotograph by Jewel Samad — AFP

Ant Financial, the digital payments offshoot of Alibaba, is now the world’s second highest valued startup behind Uber after raising $4.5 billion yesterday at a $60 billion valuation.

Since Ant’s core product Alipay releases little financial information, it’s unclear what this valuation is based upon other than the Chinese government’s belief that Alipay is something really special.

That’s because the fundraising round wasn’t led by venture capitalists, but rather by Chinese state-controlled funds. The sovereign-wealth fund China Investment Corp. and state-bank China Construction BankCorp were the top donors, Ant said. This comes one year after Ant raised a reported $2 billion from the country’s National Social Security Fund and a gaggle of state insurance companies.

The deal highlights the unprecedented bet China’s government is making on startups. China’s state-backed venture funds manage about $340 billion, as Bloomberg first reported. The government’s plan, it says, is to invest in startups avoided by private investors in a bid to boost innovation and help guide the economy away from heavy industry.

Venture capitalists and analysts are roundly pessimistic about the government’s ability to avoid wasting billions of dollars as it tries to construct winners in China’s startup world. But the money isn’t going away soon, and it could fuel further headline-raising deals like Ant’s.

The government has supported 1,600 tech incubators around the country and most cities offer some kind of support to startups. I met one in Qingdao recently. The hardware maker had less than $15 million in annual sales. It paid reduced rent, almost no taxes, and received export bonuses thanks to local government incentives.

This picture exists across China thanks to the hundreds of billions of dollars dedicated to rallying the country’s startups, recently thought to be opening at a rate of 10,000 a day, as fears grow about venture capital drying up after a rapid expansion in 2014 and 2015.

 

To understand Ant’s true valuation, skeptics and optimists alike might not have to wait long: the company is reportedly seeking an initial public offering on Shanghai’s stock market this year.