On the fourth floor of a harbourside mall on Grand Cayman, not far from touristy scuba-diving outlets and a jerk-chicken shack, is the offshored home of ride-hailing company DiDi Global, one of China’s biggest technology firms. A few doors down are the Internet companies Baidu and Meituan; Alibaba Group Holding is registered at a PO (post office) box up the street, right across from Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar.

The Caribbean footholds, essentially leased mailing addresses, have no operational value but have made it easier for Chinese unicorns to attract European and American investors. They have been a bridge between East and West, a sunny symbol of the freewheeling capitalism tolerated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the cost of allowing its homegrown juggernauts to compete with their US counterparts. DiDi’s presence there was needed for it to go public on the New York Stock Exchange on June 30. Chinese companies saw multiple benefits to gaining access to the US. When DiDi opened a research campus in California in 2017, founder and CEO Cheng Wei gushed about the company’s “new home ... alongside the greatest technology companies in the world”. Together, they were embarking on a “great journey”.

But this journey started veering off course in October when Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, one of the country’s most visible billionaires, blasted Chinese regulators for stifling innovation. President Xi Jinping’s government responded by squashing Ma’s plan to take Alibaba’s FinTech offshoot, Ant Group, public and initiating an antitrust case against Alibaba. Ma disappeared from public view, his fortune dwindled, and murmurs began about a broader realignment in the relationship between China’s government and its biggest companies.

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