Tencent Empire #00: Who can freeze a volcano that is erupting?

“Tencent 1998–2016 Evolution of Chinese Internet companies”

Saint Asky
Jan 2, 2019 · 6 min read
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Better understand “Tencent” logo

The only biography which Tencent officially authorized
By famous financial writer Wu Xiaobo (40 years China’s reform and opening-up observer)
When the Chinese Internet company with the highest market value meets the most calm eyes of the Chinese financial community
Read Tencent and understand the Chinese Internet Market

Preface: Who can freeze a volcano that is erupting?

Everything has cracks, it is the place where light comes in.

This is the evening of November 2011. I stood at the door of the Venice Hotel in Shenzhen with Ma Huateng. Before I left, he taught me to download WeChat and use the “Shake” function “mutual fans” [1].

At this time, the famous war between Tencent and Qihoo 360 [2] has just settled, and Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are fighting for users. Ma Huateng told me that WeChat is a new product of Tencent. It has more than 30 million users and adds 200,000 every day. “Because of WeChat, the war on Weibo is over.” This is the last sentence he said to me. The tone is low and unquestionable. [3]

Two months before meeting with Ma Huateng, Tencent’s other two founders, Zhang Zhidong and Chen Yidan, went to Hangzhou. We were drinking tea under the Yu tree of Longjing Village (Dragonwell tea). They hoped that I would create a Tencent enterprise history. “We promise not to interfere with the independence of creation, and can arrange for any employee to be interviewed.” I got this promise.

In the following years, I interviewed more than 60 people, including senior executives at the vice president level, general managers of some departments, and retired and resigned personnel. I checked the internal materials and documents I hoped for, and also visited the Internet industry practitioners, observers and Tencent’s competitors.

I have never spent so much time and so much energy researching a company — I am afraid there will be no future, and even worse, I have not been able to completely find its “growth password”. Even in some respects, I am troubled by more intense doubts. Tencent, which is in front of my eyes, is like an evolving organism. We are unaware of its past experiences and are attracted and engulfed by the evolution it is taking.

For a long time, Tencent was a secret of the Chinese Internet world.

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Its threshold is tight, and it does not accept in-depth interviews with the media, also rejects academic research. Ma Huateng was rarely interviewed and did not attend public events. He was like an extremely low-key “king” and stayed away from the spotlight.

What is even more surprising is that even Tencent itself is careless about its own history. Its file management can be described by the word “bad”, many original documents are not preserved, and almost no important internal meetings have written records. Tencent people told me that Tencent is a company managed by email. Many historical details are scattered among the participants’ memories and private mailboxes. When I started to create, I was very surprised by this scene, and Tencent people said to me very easily: “In the Internet industry, everyone’s eyes are on the future. Once they passed yesterday, there is no point. “The vast majority of Tencent executives are technically born, they are very sensitive to data, but they are bewildered when I need the details.” There are no images left on many important occasions — whether it’s photos or videos.

In the process of research and creation, I have been entangled in three questions:

  1. Why Tencent, not other Internet companies, be the one with the highest market value, the largest number of users and the strongest profitability in China? Is its success a result of a strategic plan or an accidental product?
  2. Why has Tencent ever encountered unprecedented doubts? How is the “accusation” of imitating without innovation, being closure (seclusion) and not open gradually take shape? How does Ma Huateng with a gentle nature become the “public enemy” in the eyes of many people?
  3. What are the similarities and differences between the Chinese Internet and the US Internet? Is the prosperity of the former a long-term follow-up journey, or is it the unique way to survive in the East?

These three questions come from the chaos past and yet clearly point to the future. I must honestly admit that for a writer, their challenge is too bigger.

In any field of cultural creation, all practitioners have always faced the double dilemma of “describe the facts” and “discover the essence.” Da Vinci said in his discussion of the painter’s mission: “A good painter should paint two major things, the person and his intentions. The first thing is easy, the second thing is very difficult.” The philosopher Wittgenstein expressed a similar point of view in a lecture in 1934. He said: “It is easy to know what we are saying, but it is very difficult to know why we say this.”

The composition of corporate history is also faced with the dilemma elaborated by Da Vinci and Wittgenstein: we need to sort out the growth history of the company and state the “thought intentions” of its occurrence. In the Industrial Revolution, the work of the researchers did a good job, whether it was Peter Drucker’s “The Concept of the Company” or the “A History of American Companies” by Alfred Chandler, which made a far-sighted description of the corporate landscape of their time. In China, our generation of financial writers can also be very handy about the creation of corporate history of companies such as Vanke, Haier and Lenovo.

However, this scene suddenly became difficult in the Internet era. In recent years, American financial writers’ Internet company history creations, such as Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs”, Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon”, David Kirkpatrick’s “Facebook Effect” and other best-selling books are not widely regarded as masterpieces. This is not due to the lack of talent of writers in our generation, but the huge uncertainty in the Internet economy inside the fission, which has caused difficulties in observation and definition. As no photographer, painter or journalist can accurately describe or even define a volcano that is erupting.

Therefore, in the past five years, my creation has experienced stagnation again and again. In some parts of the book, you can read my hesitation and puzzle. In the later stages of creation, I gave up the “grand narrative” and “principle structure”, and only focused more on the details of mining and laying out.

A few days ago, one of my philosophy professor friends came to Hangzhou. During the chat, I talked about the troubles of creating “Tencent”. He confessed to the view of the Russian thinker Bakhtin, the eccentric deconstruction master: “There has not been any summary in the world, and no one has ever said any final summary of the world. The world is open and free, everything is still in the future, and it will always be.”

When I heard that I can’t help but smile. It seems that the world is like this, the Internet is like this, and Tencent is also like this.

In this case, I was allowed to use my own way to slowly tell Tencent’s story, starting with a boy who saw Halley’s comet in the spring of 1986.

In next chapters, we’ll talk about the three main stages of Tencent’s growth, namely:
1. Starter: 1998–2004
2. Attack: 2005–2009
3. Giant: 2010–2016

Tencent is the most dangerous opponent of all Internet companies and the most worthy of learning.

Wait for tomorrow’s update!


[1] Two people shake phone the same time, Wechat match and push the namecard

[2] 3Q War: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/360_v._Tencent

[3] Later Sina Weibo bought the domain name “Weibo.com”, became the de facto “twitter” in China, Tecent gave up Tecent Weibo and comitted to Wechat

Next on Tecent Empire

Tencent Empire #01: Startup 1998–2004

Tecent Empire #02: Attack 2005–2009

Tencent Empire #03: Giant 2010–2016

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