BOOK CORNER: ‘INFLUENCE EMPIRE … The story of Tencent and China’s Tech Ambition’ by journalist Lulu Chen.


BOOK CORNER: ‘INFLUENCE EMPIRE … The story of Tencent and China’s Tech Ambition’ by journalist Lulu Chen. The print length of the book is 283 pages. The publisher is Hodder & Stoughton. The Kindle version is priced at Rs 324.50 and the paperback is Rs 629.00.

    The title is a fascinating study of the tech giant and its symbiotic relationship with the Chinese government’ – Guardian.

    The title has been shortlisted for the ‘FINANCIAL TIMES BUSINESS BOOK 2022’ and *A TIMES BUSINESS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2022*.

    It is a story of a Chinese tech giant and the Chinese state. Behind the great firewall of China, there is a parallel universe. There’s a Baidu instead of Google, a Weibo rather than Twitter, an Alibaba instead of an Amazon or eBay. Lulu tells the story of a world-beating Chinese corporation that stays low-key.

    ‘Influence Empire by Lulu Yilun Chen is so much more than the long-awaited story of Tencent and its vital everything app, WeChat, the messaging tool used by 1.3 billion people. It’s also the sobering account of an entire generation of high-flying Chinese tech entrepreneurs, whose wings were clipped by the omnipotent hand of their own government.’ — Brad Stone, author of Amazon Unbound and The Everything Store.

    Tencent WeChat is an ‘everything’ app in China. It unfolds the features of WhatsApp and Facebook, TikTok and Tinder. It is an indispensable virtual town hall and marketplace. But it also has enormous clout in the world, with tentacles in Silicon Valley, finance, gaming and Hollywood. It is heavily invested in Tesla, Spotify, Epic Games and companies around the world including Flipkart and Ola. It is estimated to be the biggest video game company in the world.

    But what is Tencent exactly? Well, it sees itself as the ultimate connector. Its talk of internet+ is about connecting any industry with the internet to revolutionise it. Its first product QQ was modelled on ICQ, the Israeli chat service from the early days of the Web. Despite the charge that it was a copycat venture, it was moulded to the needs of Chinese users in internet cafes.

    It aggressively fended off Microsoft’s MSN, and became a Goliath in the tech industry. This growth spurt was based on an unusual technique. It opened up its platform, sharing traffic and tech know-how with companies it invested in. Today, China’s two tech titans Pony Ma and Jack Ma, the founders of Tencent and Alibaba, are locked in a fierce rivalry. They have warred over mobile payments, over start-ups, and new digital ventures and are compelled to take sides in this duopoly.

    Tencent rose as China rose. Its digital economy also boomed. In the middle of the last decade, when Tencent was on a tear, China’s internet users had expanded 36-fold. One unicorn was born every 3.8 days, and two billionaires were created every week.

    Of course, this also meant operating within the defined lines of the state. Tencent was careful not to cross the Communist Party and had to oblige with censorship and surveillance calls, blocking keywords from disclosing user information. It doesn’t matter how big a company is or how entrenched it is overseas, it cannot assume any independence from the state’s interest. When Alibaba the co-founder criticised Chinese inefficiencies, Alipay’s parent group Ant Group Co bore the brunt. In the ensuing stock market crackdown, Alibaba, Tencent and their industry peers lost $1.5 billion in market value.

    Today, Tencent finds itself facing not just global but also local pressures. Deng Xiaoping’s tolerance of a few people getting rich first has given way to Xi Jinping’s ‘common prosperity’ mantra that frowns on the ‘disorderly expansion of capital’. The government’s tech priorities have shifted to hardcore tech—semiconductors, robotics and fundamental research—to reduce reliance on the US.

    The overweening tech giants of the last decade had to be disciplined. While Tencent was already compliant with the party, it too has now embarked on a string of divestments and asset sales.

    While it is actively looking to the next frontier, investing in the cloud business and technologies that will succeed the smartphone—the metaverse? A decentralised Web3? Tencent will have a delicate manoeuvre on its hands, keeping the state on its side,

    In 2017, a company known as Tencent overtook Facebook to become the world’s fifth-largest company. It was a watershed moment, a wake-up call for those in the West accustomed to regarding the global tech industry through the prism of Silicon Valley: Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft.
    Founded by the enigmatic billionaire Pony Ma, the firm that began life as a simple text-message operator invested in and created some of China’s most iconic games en route to dreaming up WeChat – the Swiss Army knife super-app that combines messaging, shopping and entertainment. Through billions of dollars of global investments in marquee names from Fortnite to Tesla and a horde of start-ups, Ma’s company went on to build a near-unparalleled empire of influence.

In this fascinating narrative – crammed with insider interviews and exclusive details – Lulu Chen tells the story of how Tencent created the golden era of Chinese technology and delves into key battles involving Didi, Meituan and Alibaba. It’s a chronicle of critical junctures and asks just what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur in China.

    ‘Lulu Yilun Chen has written a sharply informed, smart and compelling account of the rise of some of the most powerful companies in China, which also stand among the biggest and richest tech giants in the world. Despite their enormous size and power, few outsides of China know of or understand these companies. Now, thanks to Influence Empire: Inside the Story of Tencent and China’s Tech Ambition that will finally change — Howard French, former NY Times Shanghai bureau chief and author of ‘Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power’.

‘There’s so much fascinating detail here.’ — The Times

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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