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Chinese search engine giant Baidu made a tepid debut in a secondary listing in Hong Kong on Tuesday, as its shares rose 0.8% above its opening list price of 255 HKD or $32.
In total, Baidu raised $3.1 billion, $500 million less than the firm had initially targeted, signaling that Hong Kong investors are more skeptical about the search engine’s growth prospects than their peers in New York.
On Tuesday, Baidu CEO Robin Li nonetheless was optimistic about Baidu’s Hong Kong listing, explaining that the new funds would be used to invest in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence–based operating systems, semiconductor chips, and an autonomous driving platform. Baidu announced in January that it is partnering with Chinese automaker Geely to form a new electric-vehicle company. Baidu said it will develop an autonomous driving system for the cars, while Geely said it would manufacture the vehicles.
“We are standing at a new starting line to realize our dream of changing the world with technology,” Li said in a speech on Tuesday.
Some experts are less enthusiastic.
“Baidu’s open reflects the market’s lukewarm view for the company’s prospects,” says Brock Silvers, chief investment officer of Kaiyuan Capital in Hong Kong. “Baidu isn’t regarded as an effective technology innovator.”
Li also said that returning to Hong Kong’s capital markets was a homecoming of sorts for a company that made its first initial public offering in New York in 2005 but is headquartered in Beijing and primarily operates in the Chinese market.
“Our starting point was in China, and Nasdaq was only one of our stops…but we have finally achieved our wish and returned to Hong Kong, China to be listed. We are home,” Li said.
But as optimistic as Li is about returning to the Chinese territory with the listing, Beijing is not necessarily embracing the search giant or its peers with open arms.
Since Beijing postponed the blockbuster IPO of fintech giant and Alibaba-affiliate Ant Group late last year, China’s government has crafted legislation to rein in monopolistic practices at the country’s largest tech players.
Compared to China’s digital powerhouses like e-commerce firm Alibaba and social media giant Tencent, Baidu may be able to duck some of Beijing’s scrutiny. China’s regulators have largely focused on limiting the power of the financial technology sector, which Alibaba and Tencent dominate. Baidu has a strong grip on China’s search engine market, boasting some 544 million monthly users and facilitating nearly 69% of all Internet searches in China, but it spun off its fintech unit, called Du Xiaoman, in 2018, making it less exposed to the new regulations.
In fact, Li explained to Bloomberg on Tuesday that Baidu may benefit from the regulations since they may push China’s key tech players to share more data with the search engine by breaking down barriers between enclosed platforms.
Still, the firm is on the radar of Chinese authorities.
Earlier this month, China’s market regulator, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), fined Baidu and 11 other technology firms $77,000 each for “illegal monopolistic behavior.”
Baidu did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment on the fine but pointed to Li’s comments to Bloomberg on Tuesday about Beijing’s antitrust push.
“You just cannot imagine the No. 1 and No. 2 guy all of a sudden merging and gaining more than 90% of market share in the U.S. But that happened quite a few times in China before. That’s not good for innovation. So I think that the antitrust push is justified,” Li told Bloomberg on Tuesday.
Baidu’s Hong Kong debut on Tuesday was more muted than investors had hoped, but the company’s U.S. stock has turned in a strong performance this year.
Since Nov. 6, 2020, the day Chinese regulators announced they were postponing Ant Group’s Hong Kong IPO, Alibaba’s share price has fallen 23%, from $300 to $237 on the New York Stock Exchange. In that same time frame, Baidu’s share price has nearly doubled on the Nasdaq, going from $144 to $266.
Silvers explained that Baidu is likely more responsible for its dampened opening in Hong Kong than the new government antitrust rules. Hong Kong investors may simply be more savvy than their counterparts in New York in recognizing Baidu’s growth prospects, he said.
“Orders [in Hong Kong] weren’t tempered by government policy as much as by Baidu’s own failure to put forward a credible plan for the evolution of its business model,” says Silvers. “Nasdaq investors may be less familiar with the broader China technology landscape.”