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From recovery to regulation: How China's tech giants could fare in 2023 after a bruising year

It's been another rough year for China's tech stocks. Billions have been wiped off the value of the country's internet giants including Alibaba and Tencent and companies have posted their slowest growth rates on record.

A Covid resurgence in China, which the government countered with its strict "zero-Covid" policy of swift and harsh lockdowns in major cities, has hurt the world's second-largest economy. Chinese internet firms have seen a slowdown as consumer spending was hit and advertising dollars were cut back.

Investors are treading with caution into next year with regard to Chinese tech stocks and analysts are broadly expecting regulation to be more predictable and growth to accelerate. But uncertainty around China's economic outlook is creating risks.

Still, signs that China could be thinking about opening its economy again have given investors hope of a turnaround.

"We are positive on 2023 internet sector outlook in light of reopening story and improving consumer sentiment," analysts at investment bank Jefferies said in a research note last month.

Zero-Covid relaxation in focus

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, China has adopted the so-called zero-Covid policy which attempts to use strict lockdowns and mass testing to control the virus outbreak. But that policy has weighed on the economy and taken a toll on businesses.

Internet giants Tencent and Alibaba posted their slowest revenue growth rates on record in 2022, while electric vehicle makers like Xpeng saw lackluster sales as consumer sentiment took a hit.

But there are signs that China's Covid policy may be reversing.

This month, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is less severe than previous versions, a shift in tone from the government ahead of announcements on relaxing Covid control measures.

On Dec. 7, Chinese authorities formalized a slew of easing measures which included allowing some people infected with Covid to isolate at home rather than at government facilities, and removing the need for a virus test for those travelling across the country.

In my view, the biggest challenge faced by tech firms next year is probably still COVID and, as a result, the weak and uncertain economic outlook.

How the exit from zero-Covid is handled could ultimately determine the extent of the rebound for China tech.

"I will argue the prospect of a tech rebound next year depends primarily on the extent to which macroeconomy and especially consumption could recover," Xin Sun, senior lecturer in Chinese and East Asian business at King's College London, told CNBC via email.

"Given the current extremely suppressed level of consumption, largely due to COVID restrictions and also the lack of confidence among consumers, a tech rebound is indeed likely if China could smoothly exit from zero-COVID and reopen the economy."

Tech growth rates set to accelerate

Analysts broadly see growth for Chinese tech names reaccelerating in 2023 as the Chinese economy prepares to reopen — but growth won't likely be on levels seen in the past, where quarterly revenue jumped 30% to 40%.

Alibaba is forecast to see a 2% year-on-year jump in revenue in the fourth quarter of this year, before accelerating to just over 6% in the March quarter of 2023 and 12% in the June quarter, according to analysts' consensus estimates from Refinitiv.


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