Antitrust cases surge 61.5% in 2021, fines top $3B

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The State Administration for Market Regulation, China's top market regulator, investigated and dealt with 175 monopoly cases last year, up 61.5 percent year-on-year, and fined companies practicing monopolistic behavior and other anti-market practices 23.59 billion yuan ($3.53 billion) in total, according to the SAMR's latest annual report on antitrust law enforcement.

Industry experts said that the country's antitrust efforts will become more normalized and standardized beginning this year after intensive moves last year, but targeted efforts will continue to regulate monopolistic practices in key areas, including the platform economy.

According to the SAMR report released on Wednesday, more than 60 percent of investigated cases last year were related to a concentration of business operators, a practice where one business operator obtains control over another that may lead to monopolies.

The internet economy was a key area of focus for antitrust investigators in 2021. The market regulator looked into over 100 cases and levied fines involving 98 monopolistic instances in the internet sector, involving companies like Tencent, Alibaba, Meituan and JD.

"Over the past year, authorities have conducted intensive and special rectifications of improper behavior in the platform economy and have achieved the desired effect of a more equitable market environment. Now it is time for China to come back to more normal and predictable supervisory work in the sector," said Wang Xianlin, a member of the expert advisory group of the State Council's antimonopoly committee.

"To be normalized is mainly to make regulatory efforts routine and avoid fragmented supervision. Fragmented supervision is basically ignoring illegal or improper behavior during the initial development stage of a sector but suddenly starting to regulate it," said Wang, who is also director of the Center for Competition Law and Policy at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

The newly released antimonopoly report mentioned many details of antimonopoly cases related to key areas including the internet, public affairs, healthcare, semiconductors and new energy. It mentioned, for example, that the regulator approved South Korea's SK Hynix Inc's acquisition of Intel Corp's NAND memory chip business with conditions.

The conditions include that the price of SK Hynix's solid state drive products should not be higher than its average price in the market and the company should continue to expand the production of related products, and effectively guarantee the stable supply of the enterprise-level solid state drive in the Chinese market.

"The report this year disclosed many details of specific cases, which showed the market regulator's desire to boost policy transparency. The efforts will help both domestic and foreign companies better understand antitrust enforcement in the Chinese market," said Liu Xu, a senior research fellow at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

In addition, the latest report highlighted the role of supervision efficiency, saying that the market regulator strives to boost regulation synergy and create a comprehensive supervisory system throughout the progress.

It is also the first time the report disclosed that several authorities, including the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Ministry of Public Security and the Supreme People's Court were newly added as member units of the State Council's antimonopoly committee, so as to enhance cooperation in antimonopoly law enforcement.

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