Overview: Tencent displays China’s blunted tech edge

HONG KONG, Sept 23 (Reuters Breakingviews) – To many foreigners, Chinese language innovation has unfavorable connotations. The Individuals’s Republic was lengthy identified for churning out low cost manufactured items, whereas spawning company copycats which took full benefit of the nation’s huge market, home protectionism, and a relative lack of mental property rights. Over the past decade, the rise of web giants like Tencent (0700.HK) uncovered the flimsiness of the stereotype. The issue is that they grew to become so highly effective they drew Beijing’s ire.

“Affect Empire: Contained in the Story of Tencent and China’s Tech Ambition” by Lulu Yilun Chen tracks the corporate’s evolution right into a $350 billion social media and gaming behemoth. What began as a Chinese language duplicate of ICQ, an instantaneous chat platform invented by 5 Israelis, is now WeChat, a superapp that provides information, music, video games, movies and funds and is utilized by greater than 1.2 billion individuals. Its options have been typically far forward of American rivals. In response to Chen, Tencent workers mocked Fb’s enterprise mannequin: “When you’ve got a billion customers, the very last thing try to be serious about is how do I promote them a ton of advertisements.”

To fend off opponents, Tencent and its Chinese language rivals consistently carried out small improvements. Chen recounts a showdown with Hong Kong-based startup TalkBox, a WhatsApp-like service that invented a voice messaging operate. Tencent judged that a very powerful issue was the pace at which the voice chats could possibly be despatched, not their high quality. It turned out to be a vital choice that ultimately value TalkBox.

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Tencent founder Pony Ma nurtured star executives like former Goldman Sachs banker Martin Lau and Microsoft (MSFT.O) veteran Jeff Xiong Minghua. They instilled Western-style governance and helped engineer daring expansions, leaving Chinese language state champions far behind in exploiting web and fintech improvements. Tencent grew to become the crown jewel of China’s non-public sector. Traders who purchased shares on the time of its Hong Kong preliminary public providing in 2004 had by late 2020 earned a whopping annualised return of 51%, in keeping with Refinitiv.

As within the West, nevertheless, the expansion of large tech corporations drew a backlash from Chinese language regulators. In China, the turning level got here in October 2020 when Jack Ma, the outspoken founding father of rival web large Alibaba (9988.HK), lectured senior Chinese language leaders about how their rules have been out of date and stiff. A regulatory crackdown ensued, scuppering the deliberate $35 billion IPO of Ant, Alibaba’s monetary affiliate.

By comparability, Pony Ma stored a decrease profile and doggedly complied with guidelines. However, Tencent couldn’t keep away from the backlash. Authorities discovered fault with the corporate’s profitable video games, labelling them because the “religious opium” enslaving the nation’s youth. They ordered Tencent to cap the quantity of taking part in time for minors. This month, authorities authorised its first new sport since final yr.

The ferocity of the crackdown can also have mirrored nervousness amongst China’s leaders in regards to the firm’s potential energy. In response to unnamed sources quoted by Chen, a Bloomberg journalist, now-disgraced Public Safety Vice Minister Solar Lijun requested Tencent to watch a few of the nation’s most influential politicians. Final yr the Communist Social gathering expelled Solar for “cultivating private energy” and he pled responsible to taking bribes. Tencent declined to remark.

The corporate’s fall from grace has had extreme penalties for buyers. Tencent shares have dropped by 60% since a February peak in 2021, erasing almost $600 billion of market worth. The backlash additionally undermined confidence in China’s non-public tech sector. U.S. enterprise capital funding has dwindled, and even Chinese language tech buyers are actually venturing abroad.

The humbling of China’s privately owned web giants contrasts with Xi Jinping’s push for technological self-sufficiency. The Chinese language president is pouring state funding into semiconductors and different high-tech industries, the place the nation nonetheless lags the US. However, as Chen argues, an atmosphere the place company success could possibly be considered as a risk to political stability hardly encourages risk-takers to blaze new trails. Certainly, the era of Chinese language entrepreneurs impressed by Silicon Valley’s startup tradition have principally retired or disappeared from public view, whereas promoting their investments and donating to public causes to scale back their perceived affect.

Pony Ma has to this point not adopted friends like Jack Ma and Pinduoduo’s (PDD.O) Colin Huang in stepping apart. In response to native media, he informed workers at an inner assembly final yr that the corporate ought to guarantee it “doesn’t overstep, be an excellent assistant” whereas serving the nation. A humbled Tencent bodes ailing for China replicating its previous tech successes.

Observe @ywchen1 on Twitter

(The creator is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her personal.)


“Affect Empire: Contained in the Story of Tencent and China’s Tech Ambition”, by Lulu Yilun Chen, was printed by Hodder & Stoughton on July 14.

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Enhancing by Peter Thal Larsen and Thomas Shum

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Opinions expressed are these of the creator. They don’t replicate the views of Reuters Information, which, below the Belief Rules, is dedicated to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.