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US-China tensions

US considers adding China's Ant Group to trade blacklist

Move comes ahead of fintech company's jumbo IPO, sources tell Reuters

People wearing face masks use phones next to a sign of Alipay at a fair in Shanghai.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The U.S. State Department has submitted a proposal for the Trump administration to add China's Ant Group to a trade blacklist, according to two people familiar with the matter, before the financial technology firm is slated to go public.

It was not immediately clear when the U.S. government agencies that decide whether to add a company to the so-called Entity List would review the matter.

The move comes as China hardliners in the Trump administration are seeking to send a message to deter U.S. investors from taking part in the initial public offering for Ant Group. The dual listing in Shanghai and Hong Kong could be worth up to a record $35 billion.

The latest swipe at China also comes in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, in which U.S. President Donald Trump, trailing in the polls against his Democratic rival Joe Biden, has made a tough approach to China an important foreign policy platform.

The Trump officials fear Ant could potentially give the Chinese government access to sensitive banking data belonging to U.S. users.

State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ant, an affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, declined to comment but in a recent statement to Reuters emphasized that only 5% of the company's business is outside China.

The entity list, which makes it more difficult for U.S. firms to sell high-tech items to blacklisted companies, has become the tool of choice for the Trump administration to punish Chinese companies, though its real-world impact is sometimes questionable.

While curbing access to U.S. technology deals a blow to companies like Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies , which was added in May 2019, its impact on a fintech giant like Ant Group is likely to be more symbolic.

The administration has been largely loathe to use tougher tools against China, such as freezing assets in the United States, which many attribute to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin's dovish stance on Beijing.

Ant is China's dominant mobile payments company, offering loans, payments, insurance and asset management services via mobile apps. Based in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, Ant is 33% owned by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and controlled by Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

Ant's Alipay payment platform, like Tencent's WeChat's platform, is used primarily by Chinese citizens with accounts in renminbi. Most of its U.S. interactions are with merchants accepting payment from Chinese travelers and businesses in the country.

Senator Marco Rubio, who has successfully urged the Trump administration to pursue investigations of Chinese companies, called last week for the U.S. government to consider options to delay an initial public offering of Ant group, a sign of growing pressure to move against the company.

The End User Review Committee, which decides which companies to add to the list, includes the departments of State, Defense, Energy and Commerce. Defense and Commerce declined to comment while Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Hong Kong leg of the IPO, part of a dual listing in Shanghai and Hong Kong, is being sponsored by China International Capital Corp, Citigroup, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley. Credit Suisse is working as a joint global coordinator. Goldman Sachs is also involved.

However, approval for the IPO has been delayed.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that China's securities regulator is probing a potential conflict of interest in Ant Group's planned stock listing.

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