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Tencent, the $500bn Chinese tech firm you may never have heard of

Mark Sweney
WeChat mascots at Tencent office in Guangzhou, China. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters

It is China’s web giant and has a string of high-profile investments spanning Snapchat, Spotify, Tesla and Hollywood film and TV. It is a sprawling corporate giant that has recently overtaken Facebook to become the world’s fifth most valuable listed company – but few, in the west at least, will have heard of Tencent, even though it is worth half a trillion dollars and rising.

China is the world’s most populous digital market and the protection afforded by state censorship through the so-called great firewall – which has meant no competition from Facebook, Google, Twitter and Netflix – has helped Tencent flourish since it launched nearly two decades ago in Shenzhen. But in the last year the shares have been supercharged – climbing from less than HK$200 (£18) at the beginning of 2017 to HK$442 now – and the value of the company has soared.

There are three cornerstones of Tencent’s business – its messaging app WeChat; the biggest mobile gaming franchises in the world; and an ecosystem built around its 1 billion users that apes many of the services offered by the Silicon Valley firms that do not operate in China.

The company’s Netflix-style Tencent Video service – the biggest in China with exclusive content including NFL games and HBO series such as Game of Thrones – more than doubled in size in the last year, attracting more than 40 million paying subscribers.

“They have a relationship of mutual benefit with the Chinese state,” says Jamie McEwan, an analyst at Enders. “They have been allowed to grow and massively diversify their businesses without the level of scrutiny or competition you might see in western countries.”

WeChat app icon. Photograph: Reuters File Photo/Reuters

Late last year, Tencent became the first Chinese firm to pass the $500bn stock market valuation mark, supplanting Facebook as the world’s fifth biggest firm, a bittersweet moment for company co-founder Ma Huateng, 46, also known as “Pony” Ma.

In 2014, Tencent had been on the brink of buying What’sApp, which would have made it a global power player overnight. The company was close to a deal when talks had to be delayed so that Ma could undergo back surgery. A panicked Mark Zuckerberg got wind of the move and swooped, tabling an enormous $19bn rival bid – by far Facebook’s biggest deal and more than twice the offer made by Tencent – to see off the threat.

Thwarted but undeterred, late last year Ma took a 12% holding in Snapchat (he had made a small investment in 2013) in a busy year that also included buying 5% of Elon Musk’s electric car firm Tesla and swapping minority stakes in its music streaming business with Spotify.

Tencent Music, which dwarfs efforts by Apple and Spotify in China, is expected to make a $10bn stock market listing this year.

Tencent also cranked up its domination of mobile gaming, handing over $8.6bn for the Finnish company Supercell, maker of two of the biggest games in the world, Clash of Clans and Clash Royale.

Gamers play ‘World of Warcraft’ in Cologne, Germany. Photograph: Oliver Berg/AFP/Getty Images

It also owns the Los Angeles game-maker Riot, behind the huge League of Legends franchise, and has stakes in Gears of War maker Epic and Activision Blizzard, home to Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush Saga.

Tencent also owns the most profitable game in the world, Honour of Kings, which makes about $1bn a quarter and has 200 million monthly players.

It has proved so addictive in games-mad China that the government warned Tencent in an article in the state-owned People’s Daily last year saying it was “poison” and a “drug” that harms kids.

The risk of a government crackdown on one (or more) of Tencent’s golden geese – the company relies on gaming for more than 40% of total revenues – spurred jittery investors to wipe almost $18bn off its stock market value. Tencent swiftly introduced one-hour time limits for under-12s and two hours for 12- to 18-year-olds.

Analysts estimate that Tencent digital services are used by more than two-thirds of the Chinese population. Chinese users collectively spend 1.7bn hours a day on the company’s apps.

The business started in cramped Shenzhen offices in the late 1990s, swiftly developing a bad reputation for cloning digital products for the Chinese market, but it was the launch of WeChat in 2011 that supercharged the company’s strategy.

The WeChat eco-system is so broad it is almost like rolling most of the apps on a typical western user’s mobile phone into one.

“It is compared to What’s App or Facebook messenger but it is not really,” says Xiaofeng Wang, a Singapore-based analyst with Forrester. “It has payment systems, smart city offerings such as the ability to schedule appointments at a bank, a doctor, pay traffic fines or make visa applications and e-commerce.”

Tencent’s ambition to be an essential part of digital daily life means it holds a dizzyingly diverse range of interests including in Didi, China’s answer to Uber, the nation’s second biggest e-tailer JD.com and Hike, a messaging service popular in India. In December, it even did an Amazon, which has gone real-world buying retailer Whole Foods, taking a stake in one of China’s largest supermarket chains, Yonghui Superstores.

Tencent was a backer of the film Kong: Skull Island. Photograph: AP

It also has a stake in Hollywood film distributor STX Entertainment, behind movies such as Bad Moms and All The Money in the World, while movie arm Tencent Pictures was a backer of blockbuster Kong: Skull Island.

“The ultimate goal of all their investments is to enhance the services they have already developed, to support the eco-system,” says Ruomeng Wang, senior analyst at IHS Markit.

The protected market conditions that have allowed Tencent to flourish, and the vast differences between Chinese and foreign internet users’ web habits, has seen the company struggle abroad. Seven years after launching WeChat it is yet to break into any other market, although it has earmarked Malaysia.

Analysts believe a key focus will be on targeting the huge numbers of Chinese diaspora and tourists by making WeChat features like payment available overseas, rather than try and make the app a fully-fledged Facebook rival. The payment system is already available in places like Harrods and Selfridges.

“WeChat and Tencent tried aggressively expanding into international markets like South America, Europe and even the US but it didn’t work out so well in mainstream western markets where existing players like What’s App are so established,” says Forrester’s Wang. “Their global expansion will in some places target Chinese travellers, with different strategies in emerging markets like South East Asia.”

Tencent co-founder Ma Huateng aka Pony Ma. Photograph: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Tencent facts

  • It is ironic that a company worth over $500bn happens to be called Tencent, which translates into English as “soaring information”.
  • Co-founder Ma Huateng, nickname Pony Ma, is the 14th richest person in the world with a fortune of almost $50bn, one place below Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
  • Befitting its status as a global tech giant the company is aping its Silicon Valley rivals with a new $600m twin skyscraper headquarters.
  • Tencent is one of three Chinese internet behemoths, including Baidu and Alibaba, known collectively as BAT. China’s answer to Silicon Valley’s power club known as the FANGs - Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google.
  • Each year every Tencent employee, more than half of whom are employed in research and design, is given the chance to participate in a company-wide singing competition and to “shine brightly on stage”.
  • Pony Ma is deputy of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislative branch of government, politically useful in a country renowned for cracking down on businesses that get offside with Beijing.