THERE was a time, not that long ago, when China’s big internet companies were dismissed by investors in Silicon Valley as marginal firms with a tendency to copy Western products. Not any more. Today they are monsters with increasingly hefty international ambitions.
Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce group, handles more transactions each year than do eBay and Amazon combined. Jack Ma, its chairman, pledges to serve 2bn consumers around the world within 20 years. Tencent, which specialises in online games and social media, is now the world’s tenth most valuable public firm, worth some $275bn. Pony Ma (no relation), its chairman, wants China to “preside over the global tech revolution of the future”. But as the two firms become global forces, the third member of China’s “BAT” trio of internet giants, Baidu, an online-search firm that came to dominate the mainland market after Google left the country to avoid censorship, is lagging behind.
All three firms differ from their Western peers in important ways. First, Western companies usually prefer to focus on a few core areas, whereas Chinese internet firms typically try to do everything from cloud computing to digital payments. When this works, as with Tencent’s wildly successful app, WeChat, the results can be impressive.
Second, with the exception of political censorship, the internet sector in China is lightly regulated. Facebook, Apple and Google, in contrast, face increasing scrutiny. Chinese internet firms can achieve market domination of a sort that would attract close attention in other markets.
The third difference is that they can succeed on a rapid and massive scale because the state-dominated economy is so inefficient. Often there is not even a physical infrastructure to leapfrog—so-called third-tier cities, for example, often lack big retail centres. Nationwide there is one shopping mall per 1.2m people.
A huge home market has not stopped the trio from fighting bloody turf wars among each other. The outcome to this battle is rapidly becoming clear. Tencent and Alibaba are surging ahead; a series of own goals has left Baidu far behind. The common jibe about Baidu among local experts is that it is becoming the Yahoo of China, a once-dominant search giant that sank owing to a lack of innovation and a series of management blunders.
Its revenue growth fell to 6.3% in 2016, down from 35% in 2015 and 54% in 2014. The firm gets some nine-tenths of its revenues from online ads, but this income is plunging as marketers redirect spending from search ads on Baidu to social-media networks like WeChat and mobile-commerce platforms run by Alibaba. Meanwhile, Baidu is burning cash trying to keep its various big bets on artificial intelligence (AI), online video, virtual and augmented-reality technologies, and “online to offline” (O2O) services going. One of China’s most respected business consultants is pessimistic about its future: “There is very little chance they’ll be relevant in five years.”
Of the other two giants, Tencent is probably the most fearsome. It already has higher revenues and profits than Alibaba (see chart). Its value is set to climb as it ramps up advertising on WeChat (provided that does not provoke a backlash from users). Its main weapon against Alibaba is its stake in JD.com, the country’s second-biggest e-commerce firm, led by Richard Liu, one of China’s most aggressive and successful serial entrepreneurs.
JD.com has adopted an expensive “asset-heavy” business model akin to Amazon’s in America. Thus far, its vast investments in warehouses, logistics and couriers have not come anywhere near toppling Alibaba. But last year the company saw its revenues rise to $37.5bn, up from $28bn the previous year. Its share of China’s business-to-consumer market rose to 25% in 2016, up from 18% at the end of 2014. If Mr Liu’s investments in infrastructure start to pay off, much of Alibaba’s future domestic growth could be at risk.
That threat may explain why Mr Ma is not content with Alibaba’s overall 70% share of the local e-commerce market. In 2016 it spent $1bn to win control of Lazada, South-East Asia’s biggest e-commerce firm. In March Lazada launched a new service for Singaporeans directly to shop on Taobao, one of Alibaba’s two domestic e-commerce platforms (the other is Tmall).
Mr Ma last year persuaded the G20 summit of leading countries to endorse his proposal for an “electronic world trade platform” (eWTP), to make it easier for small businesses to trade across borders. Last month Alibaba launched a “digital free-trade zone” as part of the initiative, in Malaysia. This public-private partnership, which involves simplifying both logistics and payments, will help small merchants.
Mr Ma’s chief weapon for going global, however, is Ant Financial, which was spun out of Alibaba before the latter’s $25bn flotation in 2014 in New York. In China the unit offers services ranging from online banking to investment products; it even runs the mainland’s first proper consumer credit-scoring agency, Sesame Credit, which uses big data to work out the creditworthiness of punters. Ant already has more than 450m customers in China and is going overseas with gusto.
It has investments in local online-payments firms in Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea. In America Ant is in a frenzied bidding and lobbying war with Euronet, an American rival, to buy MoneyGram International, a money-transfer firm. On April 17th Ant raised its initial offer for MoneyGram by over a third to $1.2bn, topping Euronet’s bid.
蚂蚁金服投资了泰国、菲律宾、新加坡和韩国的在线支付公司。在美国，为收购汇款服务供应商速汇金（MoneyGram International），蚂蚁正与美国竞争对手Euronet展开一场疯狂的收购和游说战。 4月17日，蚂蚁把对速汇金的首次报价提高了超过三分之一，达12亿美元，高出了Euronet的报价。
Tencent is also making bold acquisitions abroad. A consortium that it led spent $8.6bn to acquire Finland’s Supercell last year, a deal that turned Tencent into the world’s biggest purveyor of online games. Together with Taiwan’s Foxconn, a contract-manufacturing giant, the firm invested $175m last year into Hike Messenger, an Indian messaging app akin to America’s WhatsApp. It was also an early investor in America’s Snapchat, another popular messaging app, whose parent company Snap went public in March.
One reason for these purchases is that Tencent’s earlier efforts to promote WeChat abroad (including a splashy advertising campaign in Europe featuring Lionel Messi, a footballer) flopped. Established social networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp proved too entrenched to dislodge. They also did some copying of their own: once they adopted some of WeChat’s innovations, Western consumers had little reason to switch to the Chinese network.
Such investments have been in Tencent’s core areas, away from turf occupied by Alibaba and Baidu. Sometimes, the trio end up co-operating, if not by design. All three BAT firms are backers of Didi Chuxing, a ride-hailing firm with global pretensions of its own. But in other ways their domestic war is spilling into foreign markets.
India is one such battleground. This month, together with eBay and Microsoft, Tencent invested $1.4bn into Flipkart, a leading Indian online retailer. Alibaba and Ant together are reported to have invested nearly $900m in Paytm, India’s top online-payments firm; in February, Paytm launched an e-commerce portal akin to Alibaba’s Tmall to take on Flipkart and Amazon in India.
Elsewhere, Tencent unveiled a service last month that will allow firms in Europe to use WeChat to sell on the mainland. This will let them sell directly into China, avoiding red tape. Tencent also recently invested $1.8bn in America’s Tesla, a pioneer in electric and autonomous vehicles. That is a particular challenge to Baidu, which is betting its future on machine learning and AI.
Baidu’s push abroad is mainly a way to get access to talent in these fields. The firm has just started its first recruiting campaign at top American universities, including Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It has a respected AI laboratory in Silicon Valley, despite the recent departure of Andrew Ng, an AI expert. But Baidu does not have the same firepower as Alibaba and Tencent. It tried but has failed to conquer foreign markets such as Japan with its search engine. This week it opened up its self-driving technology to rivals, as Tesla did in 2014, but it has a long way to go before it makes an impact in autonomous driving.
Grandiose BAT statements about global aims should be taken with a pinch of salt. It would be an error to neglect the profitable domestic market. Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, reckons that China’s online retail market will more than double in size by 2020, to $1.7trn. As Duncan Clark, author of a recent book on Alibaba, points out, whatever headlines Mr Ma and other internet bosses make with their overseas ventures, “it takes a lot to get away from the sheer gravity of China.” But at home and abroad, one thing is clear: China’s internet titans cannot be ignored.