Internet world haunted by ancient poem

Editorial | Mary Ma 12 May 2021

Tang Dynasty poet Zhang Jie could never have imagined that his poem Burning of Books and Burying of Scholars would be so expensive 1,000 years after writing it.

But it has cost Meituan investors a gross of 150 billion yuan (HK$181 billion).

Since Meituan tycoon Wang Xing recited the poem on social media last week, the share price of the fast-food delivery platform has fallen about 15 percent, accelerating a meltdown that began after the stock hit a peak in mid-February.

All in all, the stock has lost 45 percent of its market worth since February.

Alibaba's Jack Ma Yun probably regretted angering Beijing with his bold criticism of what he viewed as an obsolete approach of the regulators.

Alibaba has been fined modestly but Ma is no longer free to leave the country - let alone to fly out in style.

If Ma has learned to be politically correct the hard way, Wang has failed to take a cue from events.

It can be imagined how fund managers were caught totally offguard when they woke up last week only to discover that Wang had posted the ancient poem on mainland social media Fanfou.

Naturally, they were stunned.

The poem, composed 1,000 years ago, was a mockery of emperor Qin Shihuang.

Although the emperor had burned tonnes of books and buried hundreds of Confucian scholars alive to protect his power from the threat of knowledge, he never anticipated that his regime would be toppled by illiterates Liu Bang and Xiang Yu.

The poetic post was deleted on Sunday - but the damage was already done.

Regulators have not yet commented on Wang's recital of the poem, despite their ongoing probe into Meituan.

However, given the country's special characteristics nowadays, investors were quick to sense the danger as the poem was open to interpretation.

In his clarification, Wang insisted he merely referred to the prevailing market competition facing his company and warned his employees not to lower their guard despite Meituan's leading position in the market.

The problem is that emperor Qin is a notorious figure in Chinese history. His barbarous crackdown on thoughts by burying scholars alive and burning their books is still roundly condemned today.

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.

Talk can be expensive, and the Meituan saga isn't over yet. For one, the probe by regulators is continuing.

Also, internet stocks are bracing for an overdue correction as vaccination picks up momentum in developed economies to pave the way for economic recovery.

Remember how Nasdaq remained under pressure while the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which represents the traditional economy, regained stability?

Hong Kong stocks are vulnerable too. With Chinese companies accounting for 70 percent of local stocks, the market shakes every time a mainland tycoon makes a slip of the tongue.

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