Tencent Stalks Alibaba — China’s Number Two Internet Company Quietly Takes Lethal Aim at its Number One

China's two most successful internet entrepreneurs share a last name but have very different strategies for mobile e-commerce. The future belongs to which?
China’s two most successful internet entrepreneurs share a last name but have very different strategies for mobile e-commerce. The future belongs to which Ma?

China’s second-largest private sector company Tencent is aiming a cannon at China’s largest private sector company and new darling of the US stock markets Alibaba. Will Tencent fire? There’s a vast amount of money at stake: these two companies, cumulatively, have market cap of $400 billion, Tencent’s $140bn and Alibaba’s $260bn.

Alibaba, as most now know,  currently has China’s e-commerce market in a stranglehold, processing orders worth over $300 billion a year, or about 80% of all Chinese online sales by China’s 300 million online shoppers. Meanwhile, Tencent is no less dominant in online chat and messaging, with over 400mn users for its mobile chat application WeChat, aka “Weixin” (微信).

The two businesses appear worlds apart. And yet, they are now on a collision course. The reason is social selling, that is, using a mobile phone chat app to sell stuff to one’s friends and contacts. It’s based on the simple, indisputable notion it’s more reliable and trustworthy to buy from people you know. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin are all quite keen on social selling in the US. But, nowhere is as fertile a market as China, because nowhere else is the trust level from buying through unknown online merchants as low.

Alibaba has accumulated most of its riches from this low-trust model at Taobao’s huge online bazaar. It is a collection of thirty million small-time individual peddlers that Alibaba can’t directly control. The result, especially in a country with no real enforceable consumer protection laws or litigation, Taobao can be a haven for people selling stuff of dubious quality and authenticity.

Chinese know this, and don’t much care for it. It’s one reason both US-listed JD.com and Amazon China both seem to be gaining some ground on Alibaba. Their strategies are similar:  to be the “anti-Taobao”, selling brand-name stuff directly, using their own buying power and inventory, their own delivery people, and a no-questions-asked return policy. Their range of merchandise, however, is far more limited than Taobao’s. Tencent in 2014 bought a significant minority stake in JD.com.

Thanks to Weixin, Tencent now has the capability directly to become Alibaba’s most potent competitor and steal away billions of dollars in transactions. Will it?

As of now, Tencent seems oddly reluctant. Even as millions of Weixin users have started using the app to buy and sell goods directly with their friends, Tencent has countered by making it more difficult. Tencent introduced limits on the number of contacts each Weixin user can add, has made sending money tricky, and has more or less banned users to include price quotes in their mobile messages. For now, Weixin users appear undaunted, and are using various ruses to get around Tencent’s unexplained efforts to limit their profit-making activities. One common one: using the character for “rice” (米) instead of the symbol for the Chinese Renminbi (元).

This social selling through Weixin is called “Weishang” (微商) in Chinese, literally “commerce on Weixin”. It is without doubt the hottest thing in online selling now in China.

It’s hard to understand why Tencent wouldn’t passionately embrace social selling on Weixin. For now, Weixin looks to be an enormous money sink for Tencent. The Weixin app is free to download and use. What money it earns from it comes mainly from promoting pay-to-play online games. That’s small change compared to the tens of millions of dollars Tencent spends on maintaining the server infrastructure to facilitate and store the hundreds of millions of text, voice, photo and video messages sent daily on the network.

Chinese of all ages are glued to Weixin at all hours of the day. It can be hard for anyone outside China to quite fathom how deeply-woven into daily life Weixin has become in the four years since its launch. Peak Weixin usage can exceed 10mn messages per minute. With only slight exaggeration, Tencent’s founder and chairman Pony Ma explains Weixin has become like a  “vital organ” to Chinese.

It’s not just young kids. I took part in a meeting recently with a partner from KKR and the chairman of a large Chinese publicly-traded company At the end of the discussion, they eagerly swapped Weixin accounts to continue their confidential M&A dialogue.

My office is in the building next to Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen. I know quite a few of the senior executives. But, no one can or will articulate why Tencent, at least for now, is unwilling to use Weishang take on Alibaba. Some who claim to know say it’s because the Chinese government is holding them back, not wanting to have Tencent steal Alibaba’s spotlight so soon after its most-successful-in-history Chinese IPO in the US.

The two have sparred before. Tencent years ago launched its own copycat version of Taobao, now called Paipai. But it failed to put a dent in Alibaba’s franchise. Alibaba, in turn,  launched its own online message system to compete with Weixin. But, it’s sunk from sight as quickly as a heavy stone dropped in a deep pond.

Seen from a seller’s perspective, Weishang is fundamentally more attractive than selling on Taobao. Margins are higher, not only because Tencent charges no fees, but it’s getting much harder and more expensive to get noticed on Taobao. That’s good for Alibaba’s all-important ad revenues, but bad for merchants.

How does Weishang work? A woman, for example, buys twenty sweaters at a wholesale price, then takes a selfie wearing one. She sends this out to her 300 contacts on Weixin. Though the message includes neither the price nor much of a sales pitch, since both may be monitored by Tencent, she will often get back replies asking how to buy and how much. The sales are closed either by phone call, or through voice messaging over Weixin, with payment sent direct to the seller’s bank account.

Tencent knows Weixin is being used more and more like this, but because it’s driven the commerce somewhat underground, Tencent has no idea on the exact scale of Weishang. My guess is aggregate Weishang sales are already in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

Alibaba has clearly noticed. But, social selling isn’t something its Taobao e-commerce marketplace can do. Its mobile e-commerce strategy amounts to making it easy to scroll through Taobao items on a small screen. Social selling in China is and will remain Tencent’s natural monopoly.

For anyone wondering, Alibaba’s IPO prospectus from a few months ago did not mention Weishang and Weixin, and Tencent gets a single nod as one of many possible competitors. Weishang really began to gain traction only during the second half of 2014, after the main draft of the Alibaba prospectus was completed.

To those outside China especially on Wall Street, Alibaba seems to be on the top of the world, as well as the top of its game. In the last four months, it’s collected $25 billion from the IPO and another $8 billion in a bond offering. Its share price price is up 50% since the IPO. For a lot of us living here in China, the boundless enthusiasm in the US for “Ali” (as the company is universally known here) can sometimes seem a bit unhinged.

When will Tencent make its move? Why is it now so reticent to promote Weishang, or discuss its plans with the investment community? Is it busy next door to me readying a dedicated secure payment system and warranty program for Weishang purchases?

I don’t have the answer, but this being China, I do know where to look for guidance. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, written 2,500 years ago, remains the country’s main strategic handbook, used as often in business as in combat. The pertinent passage, in Chinese, goes “微乎微乎,至于无形;神乎神乎,至于无声;故能为敌之司命.” In English, you can translate it as “be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. “

In other words, don’t let your competitor see or hear you coming until its already too late.

China High-Tech: giant ambitions can’t disguise a disappointing record of achievement

China innovation

China high-tech achievements

“China, the innovation nation. With nine times more engineering graduates and more patents filed each year than in the US, China is transitioning quickly away from its roots as a copycat, knockoff economy to become a potent new high-tech power.” By now, we’ve all read the headlines, heard the hype. China’s high-tech ambitions were part of the sales pitch used in Alibaba’s successful US IPO last month.

No story about China, no prediction about China’s future gets more attention or more traction from consultants, authors, policy analysts. It encapsulates the unanimous hopes of China’s leadership, and the fears of America’s. “China is now standing at a critical stage in that its economic growth must be driven by innovation,” declared China’s ruling State Council in May this year.

While China is certainly making strides the reality is sobering. For all the hype, the government policies and cash, China remains a high-tech disappointment, more dud than ascending rocket. As a banker living and running a business in China, I very much wish it were otherwise. But, I see no concrete evidence of a major change underway. The best the many boosters can offer is, “give it more time and it’s bound to happen”. In other words, they make their case unfalsifiable, by saying today’s China’s tech famine will turn into a feast, if only we are prepared to stand by the empty banquet table long enough.

Unlike a lot of those forecasting China’s inevitable rise to technology superpowerdom, I’ve actually met and talked with hundreds of Chinese tech companies, and before that run a California venture capital firm with investments in the US, Israel and Europe. I’ve also run a high-tech enterprise software company in the US that used proprietary technology to gain leading market position and ultimately a high price from an acquirer when we sold the business. So, I’ve been around the tech world a fair bit, both in China and elsewhere. Rule number one: deal with the facts in front of you, not wishful thinking. Rule number two: a high-tech economy is not a quotient of national IQ, national will, national urgency or national subsidies. If it were, China might well by now be at the epicenter of global innovation.

High-tech is meant to be a savior of China’s economy, delivering higher levels of affluence in the future and an escape from the so-called “middle income trap” that has slowed growth elsewhere in Asia. But saviors have a nasty habit of never arriving.

Let’s start with perhaps the most glaring weakness: China’s failed efforts, despite momentous efforts across more than a decade, to reach even the first rung of high-tech engineering competence by designing and serially producing jet engines.

Military power both requires and underpins high-tech success.  Any doubt about this was eliminated by the collapse of USSR. I was fortunate to have a front-row seat for that event. During the 1980s and 1990s, as a Forbes journalist, I spent a lot of time in the USSR surveying both its military and civilian industries, its indigenous technology base. I was one of the few who got to spend time, for example, inside the secret Soviet rocket program, including visiting main factories where its rockets and space station were built. The rocket program was for decades the pinnacle of Soviet tech achievement.

But, it proved to have little overall spinoff benefit for USSR economy. It was a dead-end. Note: the Soviet Union then, like China now, had far more engineers and engineering graduates than the US.

As I wrote back in the 1990s, US’s military supremacy rests as much on Intel and Broadcom as it does on Lockheed Martin fighter jets and GD nuclear submarines. The US has a huge fast-adopter civilian technology market with strong competitive dynamics, something China is without. This means US military then and now can procure the best chips, best integrated software and systems cheaply and quickly from companies that are mainly serving the civilian market. The Soviet Union had no civilian high-tech industry, no market forces. The Soviet military was exposed as a technology pauper by the 1989 Iraq War.

China is different and better off in so many ways. It now manufactures a lot of the world’s most advanced civilian high-tech electronics products. This gives China huge advantages USSR never had. All the same, the USSR by the mid-1950s was producing jet engines for military and civilian use. To this day, China relies on Russia, using Soviet-successor technologies, for its advanced military jet engines. Russian jet engines are generally considered a generation at least behind the best ones manufactured now in the US, France, UK.

China’s inability to make its own advanced jet engines casts light on problems China has, and likely will continue to have, developing a globally-competitive indigenous technology base.  In the case of jet engines, the problems are at manufacturing level (difficulty to serially produce minute-tolerance machinery), at the materials level (lack of special alloys) at the industrial level (only one designated monopoly aircraft engine producer in China, so no competitive dynamic as in the US between GE and P&W).

A recent report on China’s jet engine industry puts the technology gap in stark terms.  “In some areas,” it concludes, “Chinese engine makers are roughly three decades behind their U.S. peers.”

This challenge, to bring all the parts together in a high-technology manufacturing project, is also evident in China’s failure, up to now, to develop and sell globally domestically-developed advanced integrated circuits, pharmaceuticals, new materials. In drug development, China by some estimates has spent over $10 billion on pharmaceutical research and up to now has had only one domestically-developed drug accepted in the global market, the modestly-successful anti-malarial treatment Qinghaosu (artemisinin). Interestingly, it is derived from an herbal medicine used for two thousand years in China to treat malaria. The drug was first synthesized by Chinese researchers in 1972.

It’s simply not enough to count engineers and patents, or the content of government technology-promotion policies. China lacks so many of the basic building blocks of high-tech development. Included here is a mature, experienced venture capital industry staffed by professional entrepreneurs and technologists, not MBAs. A transparent judicial system is also essential, not only for protecting IP, but managing the contractual process that allows companies to put money at risk over long-periods to achieve a return. Non-Disclosure and Non-Compete agreements, a backbone of the technology industry in the US, are basically unenforceable in China. Not just here in China, but anywhere this is the case you can about kiss goodbye big-time technology innovation.

While ignoring the troubling lessons of China’s failure to produce a jet engine (as well as jet brakes and advanced radar systems) the boosters of China’s bright tech future these days most often cite two mobile phone-related businesses as signs of China’s innovation. The two are Xiaomi mobile phones, and Tencent‘s WeChat service. Both have had great success in the last year, including getting some traction in markets outside China. Look a little deeper and there’s less to be positive about.

Xiaomi is a handset manufacturer that now has a market valuation of over $10 billion, higher than just about any other mobile phone manufacturer. It relies, though, on the same group of mainly-US companies (Broadcom, Qualcomm, Google) for its phones. They, along with UK chip-maker ARM and non-Chinese screen manufacturers, are the ones making the real money on all Android phones. In addition, Xiaomi’s phones as are many cases manufactured by Taiwanese company Foxconn. As of now, China has no domestic company that can achieve Foxconn’s levels of quality at low manufacturing cost. Foxconn does this from factories in China. Its superior management systems for high-volume high-quality production also underscore another critical area where China’s domestic technology industry is weak.

With WeChat, it’s done some impressive things, in signing up over 300 million users. The basic application is similar to that of Facebook‘s WhatsApp and others. Its real technology strength is in its back end, in building and managing the servers to store all the content that is sent across WeChat, including a huge amount of video and audio files.

Whatsapp doesn’t have similar capacity. In fact, it points with pride to the fact it doesn’t backup for storage any Whatsapp customers’ conversations. Tencent does this because it’s required to do so by Chinese internet rules and government’s policies to monitor internet content. Tencent might be able to commercialize and sell globally its backend storage architecture, but it’s not clear anyone would be interested to own it. It’s a technology that evolved from specific Chinese requirements, not market demand.

Earlier this year I spoke on a panel at a conference in Shanghai of the global bio-manufacturing industry. This is precisely the sort of area where China most needs to up its game. Bio-manufacturing relies on a combination of first-rate science, cutting-edge manufacturing techniques and far-sighted management. After all the talk and the establishment of dozens of government-funded high-tech pharmaceutical science parks across China, the simple verdict was China has yet to achieve any real success in this industry.

China is not alone, of course, in having its difficulties nurturing a globally-competitive indigenous technology industry. In their time, most of the world’s advanced major economies have all tried — Germany, France, Japan, UK. All lavished government subsidies to foster domestic innovation. All made technology a policy priority. Yet, all have basically failed. If anything, the US is now more dominant in high-technology than it was at any earlier time in history. The US is home to most of the companies earning high margins, market shares and license fees for their proprietary technology.

China has already achieved what no other country has: in the course of a single generation, it has achieved the highest-ever sustained rate of growth, and so lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty. This achievement shows the capabilities of the Chinese people, the far-sighted and pragmatic skills of its policy-makers. Both will continue to deliver benefits for China for decades to come.

For China, becoming a tech power is neither certain nor impossible. Progress can be hurt more than helped by those who engage more in hype, in predicting certain outcomes, rather than critically assess the impediments, and learn lessons from the failed efforts so many other countries have had in developing a technology industry. New thinking about innovation, and how to encourage it in China, is still lacking.