Imagine for a second life before smartphones. Simple tasks—ordering takeout, staying in touch—become frustratingly difficult, never mind dealing with emergencies. In China that’s sort of what it’s like to live without WeChat. Despite its name, which makes it sound like a messaging service, this one app dominates almost every facet of a person’s daily online existence in China—banking, dating, gaming, music, shopping, social media. It’s one of the largest social media platforms, with more people actively using it than Twitter and Snapchat put together.
I live in Hong Kong and use WeChat routinely to connect with people on the mainland. On a typical evening before the pandemic, I messaged friends about where to meet for dinner, and they sent me the location of a diner. I hailed a taxi, listened to Taylor Swift, booked movie tickets to see Spider-Man, and then paid the taxi driver. At the diner, I scanned a QR code and perused the menu. We ordered, ate, drank, paid the bill, and hardly interacted with the waiter. On my way back, I booked a flight and hotel for my next trip and scrolled the latest news and celebrity gossip. All this time, I never left WeChat.
Growing in tandem with WeChat’s influence, its parent company, Tencent Holdings Ltd., rocketed in value and clout over the past decade, at its peak standing as the world’s fifth-most valuable company. Tencent amassed stakes in Tesla, Reddit, Snap, Spotify, and an array of global entertainment brands. Behind the makers of the games Fortnite and League of Legends and the Hollywood blockbusters Men in Black: International and Wonder Woman is Tencent. It reaches the screens of billions of people globally.
But suddenly those achievements are threatening Tencent’s very existence at home. A communist purge stemming from President Xi Jinping’s campaign to “curb the disorderly expansion of capital” is washing over the country’s biggest technology companies. A ruling class of exorbitantly wealthy tech moguls, once embodied by Tencent co-founder Pony Ma Huateng, is now in hot water.
WeChat appears to be a source of alternating comfort and concern for Xi. Its ubiquity makes it a powerful tool of surveillance and control. It has also been misused by a member of his own political party to spy on colleagues, people familiar with the incident say, and has offered a venue for citizens to express collective outrage, as they did this spring when the country’s Covid-19 response faltered. Ma faced a choice: remodel his business, and himself, in the image of Xi’s new China or risk losing everything.
Ma was born in 1971 during the Cultural Revolution, a violent, traumatic time that taught a generation to err on the side of caution with politics. Ma was 13 years old when his father, a member of the Chinese Communist Party, got a job at a state-owned port company in Shenzhen. Ma was quiet, well-behaved, and largely unnoticed at school, his teachers say. He excelled at math and exhibited an obsession with telescopes.
On his university entrance exam, he scored 739 out of 900, enough to get him into Tsinghua University or Peking University, two schools in Beijing representing the highest echelon of the nation’s education system. But something happened in 1989, the year before Ma was set to start school. Thousands of students took to the streets of Beijing, occupying Tiananmen Square and demanding democracy. After the tanks rolled in and the iconic photo of a man standing in front of them was taken, Ma’s parents decided to keep their son close to home. He enrolled at Shenzhen University, a brand-new school encircled by farmland. There was no astronomy major, so he opted for computer science.
Ma established Tencent in 1998 with money he made from an earlier venture at a cost of 500,000 yuan ($60,000), the equivalent of 62 years of the average Chinese wage at the time. He and his co-founders were still working other jobs, and for the first year, corporate records list Ma’s mother as Tencent’s owner and chairman. Chat software was at the company’s core almost from the beginning. Its first hit product, QQ, was modeled after ICQ, a popular program in the late 1990s.
By late 2010, QQ controlled a large swath of social media and messaging on Chinese computers but was nonexistent on the mobile internet. Ma, already a billionaire and a national celebrity, was concerned his empire was vulnerable. Three teams within Tencent sought to find an answer to mobile messaging. One was led by a programmer named Allen Zhang, who pinged Ma very late one night asking for permission to develop a social network tailored for smartphones. Ma, who often stays up until 4 a.m., agreed. WeChat made its debut in January 2011. “It was a matter of life and death,” Ma said then. “Speed determined whether our company could survive.”
WeChat was a dud at first. Smartphone developers hadn’t yet figured out a good way to present a Chinese keyboard on a small screen, so many people simply weren’t texting. For inspiration, Ma and Zhang studied a competitor called TalkBox that was quickly gaining traction. Instead of typing, TalkBox users recorded short audio messages. “Inputting Chinese was much harder than English,” says Heatherm Huang, who helped build TalkBox shortly after graduating college when he was 21. “That’s why the push-to-talk function was so popular in Asia.” He was surprised to notice Ma and Zhang among the early users of the app, but it all made sense a few months later when WeChat came out with a replica of TalkBox’s audio messaging feature. From there, TalkBox’s growth stalled, and WeChat’s took off.
Also around this time, Ma made a crucial decision to open up Tencent’s software platforms and resources to outside developers. He suggested Tencent should become almost like a utility, a part of the internet’s infrastructure. He chose to invest in, instead of compete with, startups—some 800 in total. Tencent handed over its search engine to a rival, Sogou Inc., in return for a stake. Over the next decade, WeChat transformed into the digital equivalent of electricity or water.
At WeChat’s campus in the balmy southern city of Guangzhou, ivy snakes along brick bungalows shaded by lustrous camphor. But for the incessant song of cicadas, it’s a quiet office park replete with cashierless convenience stores and chic cafes. In open-plan spaces that were once Maoist cotton factories, programmers collectively contribute to a product that weaves together modern life in China.
WeChat also offers an important utility to the Chinese government. The app is heavily censored and closely monitored at the direction of officials in Beijing. But the vicissitudes of Chinese political life mean Tencent can find itself in jeopardy even when following orders. In one prominent case, the former vice minister of public security, Sun Lijun, asked Tencent to feed him information about fellow politicians, say people familiar with the order who requested not to be named for fear of retribution.
In September, Sun was expelled from the Communist Party, and the country’s antigraft unit accused him of “cultivating personal power and forming an interest group.” Although the government never disclosed Sun’s surveillance endeavors publicly, they emerged during the corruption investigation and triggered a backlash against Tencent from Beijing, people familiar with the investigation say. A Tencent spokesperson acknowledges that a former employee was under investigation for “allegations of personal corruption” but denies any connection to WeChat or the app’s local version, Weixin. The ex-employee accused of helping Sun acquire private information couldn’t be reached for comment.
Tencent got into trouble again when Beijing learned of a project inside the company designed to predict political succession, people familiar with the effort say. It sought to use data science to estimate who’d join the Politburo’s standing committee, they say. The prediction system, commissioned by the same former employee accused of spying for Sun, was never completed, a person with knowledge of the project says. Ma had no involvement, the person says. Tencent declined to comment.
As all this unfolded in 2019 and 2020, Ma stopped appearing at public events. He didn’t show up in person to a high-profile artificial intelligence conference in Shanghai, the National People’s Congress meeting, or Tencent’s annual party. Staff was told that Ma was stuck at home because of chronic back trouble. (He has suffered from disc herniation.) Unknown to most people, though, is that the surveillance and Politburo modeling scandals had set off alarms at the highest echelons of the Communist Party, people with knowledge of the fallout say. Those efforts underscored the power Ma possessed, and Beijing made a determination: Tencent had to be reined in.
The greatest public display of Tencent’s power arrived early this year. As the omicron variant was surging in Shanghai, WeChat became a tool to restrict people’s movement—citizens were assigned color codes based on their health risk and travel history and were required to present them when out in public. The government confined millions to their homes and triggered mass-testing on a scale unseen since the initial outbreak of 2020. WeChat also became the platform where the city’s outraged citizens aired their grievances in what became a virtual protest.
To regain control of the narrative, the government ordered internet platforms to wipe posts deemed negative or critical of the policies, sending WeChat censors into overdrive. This further antagonized the people of Shanghai. Their frustrations culminated in an unprecedented wave of public outcry in April.
If the moment had a Tank Man, it would be “Voices of April.” That’s the title of a six-minute video that began circulating on WeChat and other platforms during the omicron lockdown. It mashed up voice recordings of crying babies separated from their quarantined parents, residents demanding food, and the pleas of a son seeking medical help for his critically ill father. The video was quickly designated as banned content and removed, but not before millions of people in Shanghai and across the country viewed versions of it. People found creative ways to circumvent the censors. Some posted the video upside down; others superimposed words or images or embedded additional footage to fool the automated censor systems.
On the night of Friday, April 22, my WeChat feed was a waterfall of images and text carrying the raw emotion of a country—a rare moment when Tencent’s signature service amplified the singular pain of a collective psyche. It was all anyone wanted to talk about. Even my most politically circumspect friend condemned the government’s response. As another acquaintance put it: “I feel like I’m witnessing an historic event.”
There’s no evidence Tencent supported the online demonstration, but it continues to face the consequences of its prosperity. The company is downsizing by divesting or selling stakes in e-commerce and gaming assets, and the government ordered Tencent to overhaul its financial business. Its stock is worth half what it was last year.
So far, Ma has avoided a fate that befell many of his peers. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., relinquished his corporate duties in 2019 and has essentially gone into hiding. He was joined by the heads of Pinduoduo Inc. and JD.com Inc., the two biggest online shopping companies in China after Alibaba. The chief executive officers of TikTok’s parent company and its main rival each stepped down last year. The era of the tech idol is over.
A speech Pony Ma gave at his company’s 2021 yearend gathering offers a clue as to how he hung on. The tone this time was humble, even subservient. “Tencent is not an infrastructure-service company and can be replaced at any given moment,” he told employees, according to the local news outlet Late Post. The company’s mission should be to service the country and society and make sure it “doesn’t overstep,” he said. “Be a good assistant.”
Adapted from Influence Empire: The Story of Tencent and China’s Tech Ambition by Lulu Chen. Copyright 2022 by Lulu Yilun Chen. Reprinted with permission of Hodder & Stoughton. All rights reserved.