China Roundup: Tencent’s new US gaming studio and WeChat’s new paywall

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The spotlight this week is back on Tencent, which has made some interesting moves in gaming and content publishing. There will be no roundup next week as China observes the Lunar New Year, but the battle only intensifies for the country’s internet giants, particularly short-video rivals Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou, which will be vying for user time over the big annual holiday. We will surely cover that when we return.

‘Honor of Kings’ creator hiring for U.S. studio

Tencent’s storied gaming studio TiMi is looking to accelerate international expansion by tripling its headcount in the U.S. in 2020, the studio told TechCrunch this week, though it refused to reveal the exact size of its North American office. Eleven-year-old TiMi currently has a team working out of Los Angeles on global business and plans to grow it into a full development studio that “helps us understand Western players and gives us a stronger global perspective,” said the studio’s international business director Vincent Gao.

Gao borrowed the Chinese expression “riding the wind and breaking the wave” to characterize TiMi’s global strategy. The wind, he said, “refers to the ever-growing desire for quality by mobile gamers.” Breaking the wave, on the other hand, entails TiMi applying new development tools to building high-budget, high-quality AAA mobile games.

The studio is credited for producing one of the world’s most-played mobile games, Honor of Kings, a mobile multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, and taking it overseas under the title Arena of Valor. Although Arena of Valor didn’t quite take off in Western markets, it has done well in Southeast Asia in part thanks to Tencent’s publishing partnership with the region’s internet giant Garena.

Honor of Kings and a few other Tencent games have leveraged the massive WeChat and QQ messengers to acquire users. That raises the question of whether Tencent can replicate its success in overseas markets where its social apps are largely absent. But TiMi contended that these platforms are not essential to a game’s success. “TiMi didn’t succeed in China because of WeChat and QQ. It’s not hard to find examples of games that didn’t succeed even with [support from] WeChat and QQ.”

Call of Duty: Mobile is developed by Tencent and published by Activision Blizzard (Image: Call of Duty: Mobile via Twitter) 

When it comes to making money, TiMi has from the outset been a strong proponent of game-as-a-service whereby it continues to pump out fresh content after the initial download. Gao believes the model will gain further traction in 2020 as it attracts old-school game developers, which were accustomed to pay-to-play, to follow suit.

All eyes are now on TiMi’s next big move, the mobile version of Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty. Tencent, given its experience in China’s mobile-first market, appears well-suited to make the mobile transition for the well-loved console shooter. Developed by Tencent and published by Blizzard, in which Tencent owns a minority stake, in September, Call of Duty: Mobile had a spectacular start, recording more worldwide downloads in a single quarter than any mobile game except Pokémon GO, which saw its peak in Q3 2016, according to app analytics company Sensor Tower.

The pedigreed studio has in recent times faced more internal competition from its siblings inside Tencent, particularly the Lightspeed Quantum studio, which is behind the successful mobile version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). While Tencent actively fosters internal rivalry between departments, Gao stressed that TiMi has received abundant support from Tencent on the likes of publishing, business development and legal matters.

WeChat erects a paywall – with Apple tax

Ever since WeChat rolled out its content publishing function — a Facebook Page equivalent named the Official Account — back in 2012, articles posted through the social networking platform have been free to read. That’s finally changing.

This week, WeChat announced that it began allowing a selected group of authors to put their articles behind a paywall in a trial period. The launch is significant not only because it can inspire creators by helping them eke out additional revenues, but it’s also a reminder of WeChat’s occasionally fraught relationship with Apple.

WeChat launched its long-awaited paywall for articles published on its platform 

Let’s rewind to 2017 when WeChat, in a much-anticipated move, added a “tipping” feature to articles published on Official Account. The function was meant to boost user engagement and incentivize writers off the back of the popularity of online tipping in China. On live streaming platforms, for instance, users consume content for free but many voluntarily send hosts tips and virtual gifts worth from a few yuan to the hundreds.

WeChat said at the time that all transfers from tipping would go toward the authors, but Apple thought otherwise, claiming that such tips amounted to “in-app purchases” and thus entitled it to a 30% cut from every transaction, or what is widely known as the “Apple tax.”

WeChat disabled tipping following the clash over the terms but reintroduced the feature in 2018 after reaching consensus with Apple. The function has been up and running since then and neither WeChat nor Apple charged from the transfers, a spokesperson from WeChat confirmed with TechCrunch.

If the behemoths’ settlement over tipping was a concession on Apple’s end, Tencent has budged on paywalls this time.

Unlike tipping, the new paywall feature entitles Apple to its standard 30% cut of in-app transactions. That means transfers for paid content will go through Apple’s in-app purchase (IAP) system rather than WeChat’s own payments tool, as is the case with tipping. It also appears that only users with a Chinese Apple account are able to pay for WeChat articles. TechCrunch’s attempt to purchase a post using a U.S. Apple account was rejected by WeChat on account of the transaction “incurring risks or not paying with RMB.”

The launch is certainly a boon to creators who enjoy a substantial following, although many of them have already explored third-party platforms for alternative commercial possibilities beyond the advertising and tipping options that WeChat enables. Zhishi Xingqiu, the “Knowledge Planet”, for instance, is widely used by WeChat creators to charge for value-added services such as providing readers with exclusive industry reports. Xiaoe-tong, or “Smart Little Goose”, is a popular tool for content stars to roll out paid lessons.

Not everyone is bullish on the new paywall. One potential drawback is it will drive down traffic and discourage advertisers. Others voice concerns that the paid feature is vulnerable to exploitation by clickbait creators. On that end, WeChat has restricted the application to the function only to accounts that are over three months old, have published at least three original articles and have seen no serious violations of WeChat rules.

China Roundup: Tencent’s new US gaming studio and WeChat’s new paywall

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The spotlight this week is back on Tencent, which has made some interesting moves in gaming and content publishing. There will be no roundup next week as China observes the Lunar New Year, but the battle only intensifies for the country’s internet giants, particularly short-video rivals Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou, which will be vying for user time over the big annual holiday. We will surely cover that when we return.

‘Honor of Kings’ creator hiring for U.S. studio

Tencent’s storied gaming studio TiMi is looking to accelerate international expansion by tripling its headcount in the U.S. in 2020, the studio told TechCrunch this week, though it refused to reveal the exact size of its North American office. Eleven-year-old TiMi currently has a team working out of Los Angeles on global business and plans to grow it into a full development studio that “helps us understand Western players and gives us a stronger global perspective,” said the studio’s international business director Vincent Gao.

Gao borrowed the Chinese expression “riding the wind and breaking the wave” to characterize TiMi’s global strategy. The wind, he said, “refers to the ever-growing desire for quality by mobile gamers.” Breaking the wave, on the other hand, entails TiMi applying new development tools to building high-budget, high-quality AAA mobile games.

The studio is credited for producing one of the world’s most-played mobile games, Honor of Kings, a mobile multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, and taking it overseas under the title Arena of Valor. Although Arena of Valor didn’t quite take off in Western markets, it has done well in Southeast Asia in part thanks to Tencent’s publishing partnership with the region’s internet giant Garena.

Honor of Kings and a few other Tencent games have leveraged the massive WeChat and QQ messengers to acquire users. That raises the question of whether Tencent can replicate its success in overseas markets where its social apps are largely absent. But TiMi contended that these platforms are not essential to a game’s success. “TiMi didn’t succeed in China because of WeChat and QQ. It’s not hard to find examples of games that didn’t succeed even with [support from] WeChat and QQ.”

Call of Duty: Mobile is developed by Tencent and published by Activision Blizzard (Image: Call of Duty: Mobile via Twitter) 

When it comes to making money, TiMi has from the outset been a strong proponent of game-as-a-service whereby it continues to pump out fresh content after the initial download. Gao believes the model will gain further traction in 2020 as it attracts old-school game developers, which were accustomed to pay-to-play, to follow suit.

All eyes are now on TiMi’s next big move, the mobile version of Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty. Tencent, given its experience in China’s mobile-first market, appears well-suited to make the mobile transition for the well-loved console shooter. Developed by Tencent and published by Blizzard, in which Tencent owns a minority stake, in September, Call of Duty: Mobile had a spectacular start, recording more worldwide downloads in a single quarter than any mobile game except Pokémon GO, which saw its peak in Q3 2016, according to app analytics company Sensor Tower.

The pedigreed studio has in recent times faced more internal competition from its siblings inside Tencent, particularly the Lightspeed Quantum studio, which is behind the successful mobile version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). While Tencent actively fosters internal rivalry between departments, Gao stressed that TiMi has received abundant support from Tencent on the likes of publishing, business development and legal matters.

WeChat erects a paywall – with Apple tax

Ever since WeChat rolled out its content publishing function — a Facebook Page equivalent named the Official Account — back in 2012, articles posted through the social networking platform have been free to read. That’s finally changing.

This week, WeChat announced that it began allowing a selected group of authors to put their articles behind a paywall in a trial period. The launch is significant not only because it can inspire creators by helping them eke out additional revenues, but it’s also a reminder of WeChat’s occasionally fraught relationship with Apple.

WeChat launched its long-awaited paywall for articles published on its platform 

Let’s rewind to 2017 when WeChat, in a much-anticipated move, added a “tipping” feature to articles published on Official Account. The function was meant to boost user engagement and incentivize writers off the back of the popularity of online tipping in China. On live streaming platforms, for instance, users consume content for free but many voluntarily send hosts tips and virtual gifts worth from a few yuan to the hundreds.

WeChat said at the time that all transfers from tipping would go toward the authors, but Apple thought otherwise, claiming that such tips amounted to “in-app purchases” and thus entitled it to a 30% cut from every transaction, or what is widely known as the “Apple tax.”

WeChat disabled tipping following the clash over the terms but reintroduced the feature in 2018 after reaching consensus with Apple. The function has been up and running since then and neither WeChat nor Apple charged from the transfers, a spokesperson from WeChat confirmed with TechCrunch.

If the behemoths’ settlement over tipping was a concession on Apple’s end, Tencent has budged on paywalls this time.

Unlike tipping, the new paywall feature entitles Apple to its standard 30% cut of in-app transactions. That means transfers for paid content will go through Apple’s in-app purchase (IAP) system rather than WeChat’s own payments tool, as is the case with tipping. It also appears that only users with a Chinese Apple account are able to pay for WeChat articles. TechCrunch’s attempt to purchase a post using a U.S. Apple account was rejected by WeChat on account of the transaction “incurring risks or not paying with RMB.”

The launch is certainly a boon to creators who enjoy a substantial following, although many of them have already explored third-party platforms for alternative commercial possibilities beyond the advertising and tipping options that WeChat enables. Zhishi Xingqiu, the “Knowledge Planet”, for instance, is widely used by WeChat creators to charge for value-added services such as providing readers with exclusive industry reports. Xiaoe-tong, or “Smart Little Goose”, is a popular tool for content stars to roll out paid lessons.

Not everyone is bullish on the new paywall. One potential drawback is it will drive down traffic and discourage advertisers. Others voice concerns that the paid feature is vulnerable to exploitation by clickbait creators. On that end, WeChat has restricted the application to the function only to accounts that are over three months old, have published at least three original articles and have seen no serious violations of WeChat rules.

China Roundup: WeChat’s new focus on monetization

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. At the beginning of each year, a large crowd of developers, content creators and digitally-savvy business owners gather in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou for the WeChat conference, the messaging giant’s premier annual gathering. The event is meant to give clues to WeChat’s future and the rare occasion where its secretive founder Allen Zhang emerges in public view. But this year, much to the audience’s disappointment, Zhang was absent.

WeChat’s new era of money-making

The boss’s absence was not outright unexpected, an industry analyst told me, as WeChat shifts to focus more on monetization. With 1.1 billion active users, the app has been incredibly conservative with selling ads and pursuing other money-making strategies, an admirable decision from the user’s perspective but arguably frustrating for Tencent’s stakeholders. Part of the restrain is due to Zhang’s user-first design philosophy and minimalistic product aesthetics. When reflecting on why WeChat doesn’t support splash ads — ads that are displayed full-page every time an app is launched — the boss had this to say (in Chinese) at last year’s WeChat conference:

“If WeChat is a person, it must have been your closest friend to deserve so much time you spent on it. So how could I have the heart to plaster an ad on your best friend’s face and ask you to watch the ad before speaking to him?”

The emphasis on user experience now seems overshadowed by Tencent’s need to carve out more revenue streams. The giant’s cash cow — its gaming business — has taken a hit in recent years following a wave of new government policies on the online entertainment industry. Tencent’s imminent rival ByteDance, the creator of TikTok, is getting a larger slice of the digital advertising pie in China.

One way to step up monetization within WeChat is to stimulate more business transactions. The app mapped out at the conference what it has done and what it plans to do on this front.

WeChat founder Allen Zhang addressing the audience of WeChat’s annual conference through a pre-recorded video in January 2020 

Mini programs

The lite apps that skip app store downloads and run inside WeChat have surpassed 300 million daily active users. Practically every internet service in China — with the exception of a few that are at odds with Tencent, such as Alibaba’s ecommerce platforms — have built a WeChat mini program version of their full-fledged app. Without ever leaving WeChat, users can complete tasks from playing casual games, booking movie tickets to getting food delivered.

Consumers and businesses are indeed increasingly embracing WeChat as a platform for transactions, of which the default payment method is WeChat Pay. Users spent more than 800 billion yuan ($115 billion) through mini apps in 2019, up 160% year-over-year driven by the likes of ecommerce and other retail activities.

To further drive that spending momentum, WeChat announced it will make it easier for businesses to monetize through mini programs. For one, these apps will be better integrated into WeChat’s search results, giving businesses more exposure. The messenger will also broaden the variety of ads embedded in mini programs and provide logistics management tools to retail-focused developers.

These efforts signify WeChat’s shift from focusing on mass consumers to businesses, a strategy that goes in tandem with Tencent’s enterprise-driven roadmap for the next few years. It remains to be seen whether these changes will square with Zhang’s user-first philosophy.

Credit scoring

WeChat’s one-year-old “Payments Score” has picked up some 100 million users by far. The program came about amid China’s push to encourage the development of credit scoring across society and industries to both regulate citizen behavior and drive financial inclusion, although Tencent’s private effort should not be conflated with Beijing’s national scheme. Like Alibaba’s Sesame Credit, WeChat Payments Score is better understood as a user loyalty program. Participation is optional and scores factors in the likes of user identities, payment behavior and default history.

Such a trust-building vehicle holds the potential to bring more transactions to WeChat, which previously lacked a full-fledged ecommerce infrastructure a la Alibaba’s Taobao. Users with a high score receive perks like deposit-free hotel booking, while application of the program is not limited to transactions but has also been adapted for rewarding “good” behavior. For instance, those with high points can redeem recyclable trash bags for free.

Tencent’s gaming empire

Tencent snatched up another gaming studio to add to its portfolio after earmarking an undisclosed investment in PlatinumGames, the Japanese developer of the well-received action title Bayonetta said in a blog post.

Over the decade the Chinese gaming behemoth has extended its footprint to a raft of influential gaming studios worldwide, taking stakes in the likes of League of Legends maker Riot Games (full control), Clash of Clans’ Supercell (84%), Fornite developer Epic Games (40%), PlayerUnkonwn’s Battlegrounds’ Bluehold (rumored 10%), and World of Warcraft’s Activation Blizzard. It’s also Nintendo Switch’s publishing partner in China.

PlatinumGames noted that it will continue to operate independently under its existing corporate structure, a setup that’s in line with Tencent’s non-interference investment principle and a major appeal for companies desiring both the giant’s resources and a degree of autonomy. The corpus of cash will help strengthen PlatinumGames’ current business, expand from game developing into self-publishing and add a “wider global perspective.”

Tencent’s hands-off approach has led industry experts to call it an “investment vehicle” relying on external intellectual property but in recent times the company’s in-house development teams have been striving for more visibility. Its Shenzhen-based TiMi studio, for example, is notable for producing the mobile blockbuster Honor of Kings; its Lightspeed and Quantum studio, similarly, rose to fame for developing the popular mobile version of PUBG.

China Roundup: TikTok receives most government requests from India and US

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, TikTok, currently the world’s hottest social media app, welcomed the new decade by publishing its first transparency report as it encounters rising scrutiny from regulators around the world.

TikTok tries to demystify 

The report, which arrived weeks after it tapped a group of corporate lawyers to review its content moderation policy, is widely seen as the short video app’s effort to placate the U.S. government. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, is currently probing the app for possible national security risks.

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based tech upstart ByteDance and has been rapidly gaining popularity away from its home turf, especially in the U.S. and India. As of November, it had accumulated a total of 1.5 billion downloads on iOS and Android devices, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower, although how many materialized into active users is unknown.

The transparency report reveals the number of requests TikTok received from local regulators during the first half of 2019. Such orders include government requests to access user information and remove content from the platform. India topped the list with 107 total requests filed, followed by the U.S. with 79 requests and Japan at 35.

The numbers immediately sparked debates over the noticeable absence of China among the list of countries that had submitted requests. This could be because TikTok operates as a separate app called Douyin in China, where it claimed to have more than 320 million daily active users (in Chinese) as of last July.

TikTok has taken multiple measures to ease suspicions of international markets where it operates, claiming that it stores data of U.S. users in the U.S. and that the app would not remove videos even at the behest of Beijing’s authority.

Whether skeptics are sold on these promises remains to be seen. Meanwhile, one should not overlook the pervasive practice of self-censorship among China’s big tech.

“Chinese internet companies know so well where the government’s red line is that their self-regulation might even be stricter than what the government actually imposes, so it’s not impossible that [the TikTok report] showed zero requests from China,” a person who works at a Chinese video streaming platform suggested to me.

It’s worth revisiting why TikTok has caused a big stir on various fronts. Besides its nationality as a Chinese-owned app and breathtaking rise, the app presents a whole new way of creating and consuming information that better suits smartphone natives. It’s been regarded as a threat to Facebook and compared to Youtube, which is also built upon user-generated content. However, TikTok’s consumers are much more likely to be creators as well, thanks to lower barriers to producing and sharing videos on the platform, venture capitalist David Rosenthal of Wave Capital observed. That’s a big engagement driver for the app.

Another strength of TikTok, seemingly trivial at first sight, is the way it displays content. Videos are shown vertically, doing away the need to flip a phone. In a company blog post (in Chinese) on Douyin’s development, ByteDance recounted that most short-video apps budding in 2016 were built for horizontal videos and required users to pick from a list of clips in the fashion of traditional video streaming sites. Douyin, instead, surfaces only one video at a time, full-screen, auto-played and recommended by its well-trained algorithms. What “baffled” many early employees and interviewees turned out to be a game-changing user experience in the mobile internet age.

Douyin’s ally and enemy 

A recent change in Douyin’s domestic rival Kuaishou has brought attention to the intricate links between China’s tech giants. In late December, video app Kuaishou removed the option for users to link e-commerce listings from Taobao, an Alibaba marketplace. Both Douyin and Kuaishou have been exploring e-commerce as a revenue stream, and each has picked its retail partners. While Kuaishou told media that the suspension is due to a “system upgrade,” its other e-commerce partners curiously remain up and running.

Left: Douyin lets creators add a “shop” button to posts. Right: The clickable button is linked to a Taobao product page.

Some speculate that the Beijing-based company could be distancing itself from Alibaba and moving closer to Tencent, Alibaba’s nemesis and a majority shareholder in Kuaishou. Yunfeng Capital, a venture firm backed by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, has also funded Kuaishou but holds a less significant equity stake. That Douyin has long been working with Alibaba on e-commerce might have also been a source of discordance between Kuaishou and Alibaba.

China Roundup: Ant Financial’s new boss and Tencent’s army of new apps

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, we are looking at what Ant Financial’s executive shakeup could give to Alibaba’s financial affiliate and why Tencent has gone on an app-launching spree.

Return of the old boss

This week, Ant Financial, the online financial services company, 33% of which is owned by Alibaba and controlled by Jack Ma, announced Hu Xiaoming as its new chief executive. Management reshuffles aren’t rare at Alibaba, which prides itself on rotating executives every few months to stay fresh and agile in a competitive environment. The latest reshuffle is providing some clues to where Ant, the world’s most valuable private fintech company, is headed in the coming years.

Hu will take the lead in growing Ant’s domestic payments and financial services units while his predecessor and current chairman Eric Jing will manage overseas expansion and development of new technologies. Having worked at several major Chinese banks, Hu joined Alibaba in 2005 to expand the firm’s budding financial services and has since been credited with helping Ant identify paths to monetization.

Around 2009, Hu made a bold move to initiate a microloan service targeted at small and medium sellers on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform. It was a boon to millions of merchants who otherwise would not be able to borrow from traditional financial institutions because they lacked banking history. Instead, Alibaba assessed their creditworthiness based on digital records, such as online sales and customer ratings. Today, small loans are just one of the many offerings from Ant’s ever-expanding financial empire, which also operates the billion-user Alipay payments app, the world’s largest money market fund and credit-rating system Sesame Credit.

In 2014, the storied executive was assigned to lead Alibaba’s cloud business and later grew it into one of the firm’s fastest-growing segments and a serious contender to Amazon Web Services. Hu was no stranger to Alibaba Cloud, which had already been working to introduce cloud computing to the fintech unit’s existing IT environments (in Chinese). In fact, most of Alibaba Cloud’s early applications happened internally at Alibaba as the company felt the urgency to develop an IT system that was more scalable and customizable than most large international vendors could provide.

Under Hu’s helm, the cloud arm struck a major deal with the government of Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown in Eastern China, to ease traffic congestion using data analytics and cloud computing solutions. Government contracts are an important lever for businesses developing costly state-of-the-art technologies, for as soon as an innovation is proven in practice, private demand will pick up over time.

Hu Xiaoming, new CEO of Alibaba’s financial affiliate Ant Financial (Ant Financial via Weibo)

Hu’s experience with commercializing new technologies and cooperating with state agencies makes him the ideal leader of Ant at a critical time. Last year, Ant’s highly anticipated IPO plans were pushed back reportedly because Beijing worried the private firm had amassed too much influence. To allay concerns among regulators and big banks, Ant has in recent times pivoted to focus more on selling technology solutions rather than financial services, per se.

Social networking anxiety

Tencent has launched at least seven new social networking apps since the beginning of 2019. Each comes with a slightly different focus, whether it’s targeting college students or specializing in video-based chatting. Industry observers said Tencent made these moves to defend challengers, particularly ByteDance of which TikTok (or Douyin in China) has taken the world by storm. Although short videos don’t directly compete with Tencent’s messengers WeChat, they certainly are consuming more of people’s screen time. And there are signs that ByteDance is encroaching on Tencent’s core markets after the upstart pushed into video games and messaging.

Tencent might also worry about WeChat’s slowing growth. The slowdown is in part attributed to the app’s already enormous base — more than 1 billion monthly users — so growth has inevitably cooled. WeChat gave Tencent a timely boost at the start of the mobile internet revolution when QQ, Tencent’s messenger that dominated China’s PC era, had seen its day. Now Tencent appears to be in need of a new growth engine, be it a groundbreaking feature of WeChat to rejuvenate the app or a brand new social network to replicate the success of WeChat and QQ.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Tencent, like all other large internet companies in China, is always testing new products to meet shifting landscapes in the tech industry. Tencent is famous for pitting different departments against each other in what it calls an internal “horse race,” which spawned WeChat almost 10 years ago. In most cases, these projects failed to catch on, but the cost of making new apps is negligible for a behemoth like Tencent because much of the development process has been standardized. All it needs is a skunkworks team of a dozen employees, ideally headed by a visionary such as WeChat’s Allen Zhang.

Also worth your attention

Nvidia, the chipmaker known for its GPUs, is already working with some 370 automakers, tier-1 suppliers, developers and researchers in the field of autonomous driving. This week to its family of partners it added China’s largest ride-hailing company, Didi Chuxing . Together the pair will work on developing GPUs for Didi’s Level 4 autonomous cars (which can operate under basic situations without human intervention), the companies said in a statement. Didi, which peeled its autonomous driving unit into a separate company in August, said last month (in Chinese) at an industry conference that it had plans to soon begin testing autonomous vehicles on Shanghai streets.

China Roundup: GitHub’s China ambitions and WeWork rival’s big hopes

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, we are looking at how WeWork’s largest rival in China — UCommune — is pulling ahead with its initial public offering and GitHub’s potential big move in China.

GitHub turns to China

The world’s largest source code repository host GitHub is mulling to open a Chinese subsidiary, the company’s CEO told the Financial Times recently. The plan comes at a time when the technological rift between China and the U.S. is deepening. The U.S.’s trade sanctions on Huawei, which includes limiting the company’s access to certain Android services, has stirred concerns of further “decoupling” between the two countries. Since then Huawei has stepped up efforts to cut its reliance on American suppliers and develop its own core chips and software operating system.

American tech companies are feeling a similar chill from the trade war. Opening a China office could potentially help GitHub hedge against trade war bans and alleviate the company’s risks in its second-largest market. The demand for a China backup plan appears to have grown after GitHub restricted accounts of users in Cuba, Iran and a few other countries to comply with U.S. sanctions, a decision that sparked an outcry from open-source developer communities around the world and worried Chinese users that the same could befall them.

On the other hand, developers in China and overseas worry that maintaining a China-based operation might subject GitHub’s local projects to Beijing censorship as the country requires foreign companies operating in China to store users’ data locally. Though GitHub has previously been blocked in China seemingly for sharing anti-censorship tools, the restriction was usually temporary. As of now, the site remains largely accessible in China, according to Greatfire.org, a website that monitors China’s online censorship. But the concerns are justified. LinkedIn and Bing, sharing the same parent company — Microsoft — with GitHub, have been roundly criticized for practicing censorship in China.

Big hopes and losses

China’s shared space provider UCommune is moving ahead of its rival WeWork as it filed with the U.S. securities exchange for an IPO this week. Like its American counterpart, UCommune — which rebranded from UrWork after a name dispute with WeWork — hasn’t yet found its way to profitability. The Beijing-based company posted a net loss of 573 million yuan ($80.13 million) for the first three quarters ended September 30, 2019, up from 271 million yuan a year earlier, shows its F1 filing.

UCommune founder Mao Daqing, a real estate veteran, has previously forecasted that China’s co-working industry would be valued close to 100 billion yuan ($14 billion) by 2030. The reality is a bit more dismal. WeWork is reportedly coping with high vacancy rates across major Chinese cities, although sources told TechCrunch that spaces could be easily filled up with one or two large corporate contracts per location.

Perhaps more notably, half of UCommune’s revenue is derived from so-called “marketing and branding services,” which include content design as well as online and offline advertising services it sells to customers. The marketing segment, curiously, is attributed to one single subsidiary, a digital marketing services provider it acquired in late 2018. UCommune warns in its prospectus that “the historical financial results of our marketing and branding services may not serve as an adequate basis for evaluating the future financial results of this segment” because revenue from the unit relies overwhelmingly on a small number of major enterprise clients.

Also worth your attention…

Despite Huawei’s push to build its own alternative operating system — HarmonyOS — the Chinese giant is sticking with Android for the foreseeable future. At a company event this week in Shenzhen, its home city, consumer software executive Wang Chenglu announced (in Chinese) that all of Huawei’s handsets, tablets and laptops will continue to carry Android-based OS in 2020. Meanwhile, Huawei’s other products, including a broad range of Internet of Things that make up a smaller chunk of its consumer revenue, will ship with HarmonyOS.

Kuaishou, the largest rival to TikTok in China has reached 100 million daily active users, the company announced (in Chinese) this week. Tencent-backed Kuaishou was one of China’s first short-video apps to have attracted a meaningful following, but it was quickly leapfrogged by a latecomer, ByteDance’s Douyin, which is TikTok’s brand in China.

Though similarly focused on bite-sized videos, the two apps differ fundamentally in the way they distribute content. Trending videos on Douyin tend to come from pedigreed influencers and professional creators; users are fed what Douyin’s complex algorithms determine as “quality” content. Kuaishou, in comparison, works to cultivate a sense of community as its users get exposed to a broader range of long-tail content — often from creators with insignificant followings.

That places Douyin closer to a form of “media” and Kuaishou closer to a “social network,” suggested (in Chinese) Liu Jianing, managing director of China’s top boutique investment bank China Renaissance, at a recent industry conference. For that reason, the two apps also monetize differently — while Douyin generates revenue mainly from ads, Kuaishou harnesses its social graphs to enable social commerce wherein shoppers leverage other users’ recommendations to make purchases.

China Roundup: Y Combinator’s short-lived China dream

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. Last week, we looked at how Alibaba and Tencent fared in the last quarter; the talk in Silicon Valley and Beijing this week is on Y Combinator’s sudden retreat from China. We will also discuss the enduring food delivery war in the country later.

Brief adventure in the East

The storied Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator announced the closure of its China unit just a little over a year after it entered the country. In a vague statement posted on its official blog, the organization said the decision came amid a change in leadership. Sam Altman, its former president who hired legendary artificial intelligence scientist Lu Qi to initiate the China operation, recently left his high-profile role to join research outfit OpenAI. With that, YC has since refocused its energy to support “local and international startups from our headquarters in Silicon Valley.”

What was untold is the insurmountable challenge that multinationals face in their attempt to win in a wildly different market. Lu Qi, who wore management hats at Baidu and Microsoft before joining YC, was clearly aware of the obstacles when he said in an interview (in Chinese) in May that “multinational corporations in China have almost been wiped out. They almost never successfully land in China.” The prescription, he believes, is to build a local team that’s given full autonomy to make decisions around products, operations, and the business.

A former executive at an American company’s China branch, who asked to remain anonymous, argued that Lu Qi’s one-man effort can’t be enough to beat the curse of multinationals’ path in China. “All I can say is: Lu has taken a detour. Going independent is the best decision. When it comes to whether Chinese startups are suited for mentorship, or whether incubators bring value to China, these are separate questions.”

What’s curious is that YC China seemed to have been given a meaningful level of freedom before the split. “Thanks to Sam Altman and the U.S. team, who agreed with my view and supported with much preparation, YC China is not only able to enjoy key resources from YC U.S. but can also operate at a completely independent capacity,” Lu said in the May interview.

Moving on, the old YC China team will join Lu Qi to fund new companies under a newly minted program, MiraclePlus, announced YC China via a Wechat post (in Chinese). The initiative has set up its own fund, team, entity and operational team. The deep ties that Lu has fostered with YC will continue to benefit his new portfolio, which will receive “support” from the YC headquarters, though neither party elaborated on what that means.

Alibaba’s food delivery nemesis

The food delivery war in China is still dragging on two years after the major consolidation that left the market with two major players. Meituan, the local services company backed by Tencent, has managed to attain an expanding share against Alibaba-owned Ele.me. According to third-party data (in Chinese) provided by Trustdata, Meituan accounted for 65.1% of China’s overall food delivery orders during the second quarter, steadily rising from just under 60% a year ago. Ele.me, on the other hand, has lost nearly 10% of the market, slumping to 27.4% from 36% a year ago.

In terms of monetization, Meituan generated 15.6 billion yuan ($2.2 billion) in revenue from its food delivery segment in the quarter ended September 30. That dwarfs Ele.me, which racked up 6.8 billion yuan ($970 million) during the same period. Both are growing north of 30% year-over-year.

meituan dianping

Source: Meituan

This may not be all that surprising given Alibaba has arguably more imminent battles to fight. The e-commerce leader has been consumed by the rise of Pinduoduo, which has launched an assault on China’s low-tier cities with its ultra-cheap products and social-driven online shopping experience. Meituan, on the other hand, is fixated on beefing up its main turf of on-demand neighborhood services after divesting its costly bike-sharing endeavor. 

When both contestants have the capital to burn through — as they have demonstrated through heavily subsidizing customers and restaurants — the race comes down to which has greater control of user traffic. Meituan holds a competitive edge thanks to its merger with Dianping, a leading restaurant review app akin to Yelp, back in 2015. Dianping today operates as a standalone brand but its food app is deeply integrated with Meituan’s delivery services. For example, hundreds of millions of users are able to place Meituan-powered food delivery orders straight from Dianping.

Alibaba and Meituan used to be on more friendly terms just a few years ago. In 2011, the e-commerce giant participated in Meituan’s $50 million Series B financing. Before long, the two clashed over control of the company. Alibaba is known to impose a heavy hand on its portfolio companies by taking up majority stakes and reshuffling the company with new executives. That’s because Alibaba believes that “only when you operate can you generate synergies and really create exponential value,” said vice chairman Joe Tsai in an interview. Whereas if you just make a financial investment, you’re counting an internal rate of return. You’re not creating real value.”

Ele.me lived through that transformation. As of September, Alibaba has reportedly (in Chinese) completed replacing Ele.me’s management with its pool of appointed personnel. Ele.me’s founder Zhang Xuhao left the company with billions of yuan in cash and joined a venture capital firm (in Chinese).

Meituan’s founder Wang Xing had more unfettered pursuits. In a later financing round, he refused to accept Alibaba’s condition for portfolio companies to eschew Tencent investments, a strategy of the giant to hobble its archrival. That botched the partnership and Alibaba has since been gradually offloading its Meituan shares but still held onto small amounts, according to Wang in 2017, “to create trouble” for Meituan going forward.

China Roundup: Alibaba’s Hong Kong listing and Tencent’s new fuel

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. The earnings season is here. This week, long-time archrivals in the Chinese internet battlefield — Alibaba and Tencent — made some big revelations about their future. First off, let’s look at Alibaba’s long-awaited secondary listing and annual shopping bonanza.

Forget about the number

It’s that time of year. On November 11, Alibaba announced it generated $38.4 billion worth of gross merchandise value during the annual Single’s Day shopping festival, otherwise known as Double 11. It smashed the record and grabbed local headlines again, but the event means little other than a big publicity win for the company and showcasing the art of drumming up sales.

GMV is often used interchangeably with sales in e-commerce. That’s problematic because the number takes into account all transactions, including refunded items, and it’s by no means reflective of a company’s actual revenue. There are numerous ways to juice the figure, too, as I wrote last year. Presales began days in advance, incentives were doled out to spur last-minute orders and no refunds could be processed until November 12.

Even Jiang Fan, the boss of Alibaba’s e-commerce business and the youngest among Alibaba’s 38 most important decision-makers, downplayed the number: “I never worry about transaction volumes. Numbers don’t matter. What’s most important is making Single’s Day fun and turning it into a real festival.”

Indeed, Alibaba put together another year of what’s equivalent to the Super Bowl halftime show. Taylor Swift and other international big names graced the stage as the evening gala was live-streamed and watched by millions across the globe.

Returning home

Alibaba is going ahead with its secondary listing in Hong Kong on the heels of reports that it could delay the sale due to ongoing political unrest in the city-state. The company is cash-rich, but listing closer to its customers can potentially ease some of the pressure arising from a new era of volatile U.S.-China relationships.

Alibaba is issuing 500 million new shares with an additional over-allotment option of 75 million shares for international underwriters, it said in a company blog. Reports have put the size of its offering between $10 billion and $15 billion, down from the earlier rumored $20 billion.

The giant has long expressed it intends to come home. In 2014, the e-commerce behemoth missed out on Hong Kong because the local exchange didn’t allow dual-class structures, a type of organization common in technology companies that grants different voting rights for different stocks. The giant instead went public in New York and raised the largest initial public offering in history at $25 billion.

“When Alibaba Group went public in 2014, we missed out on Hong Kong with regret. Hong Kong is one of the world’s most important financial centers. Over the last few years, there have been many encouraging reforms in Hong Kong’s capital market. During this time of ongoing change, we continue to believe that the future of Hong Kong remains bright. We hope we can contribute, in our small way, and participate in the future of Hong Kong,” said chairman and chief executive Daniel Zhang in a statement.

Missing out on Alibaba had also been a source of remorse for the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong. Charles Li, chief executive of the HKEX, admitted that losing Alibaba to New York had compelled the bourse to reform. The HKEX has since added dual-class shares and attracted Chinese tech upstarts such as smartphone maker Xiaomi and local services platform Meituan Dianping.

Tencent’s new fuel

Content and social networks have been the major revenue drivers for Tencent since its early years, but new initiatives are starting to gain ground. In the third quarter ended September 30, Tencent’s “fintech and business services” unit, which includes its payments and cloud services, became the firm’s second-largest sales avenue trailing the long-time cash cow of value-added services, essentially virtual items sold in games and social networks.

Payments, in particular, accounted for much of the quarterly growth thanks to increased daily active consumers and number of transactions per user. That’s good news for the company, which said back in 2016 that financial services would be its new focus (in Chinese) alongside content and social. The need to diversify became more salient in recent times as Tencent faces stricter government controls over the gaming sector and intense rivalry from ByteDance, the new darling of advertisers and owner of TikTok and Douyin.

Tencent also broke out revenue for cloud services for the first time. The unit grew 80% year-on-year to rake in 4.7 billion yuan ($670 million) and received a great push as the company pivoted to serve more industrial players and enterprises. Alibaba’s cloud business still leads the Chinese market by a huge margin, with revenue topping $1.3 billion during the September quarter.

Also worth your attention…

Luckin Coffee, the Chinese startup that began as a Starbucks challenger, is starting to look more like a convenient store chain with delivery capacities as it continues to increase store density (a combination of seated cafes, pickup stands and delivery kitchens) and widen product offerings to include a growing snack selection. Though bottom-line loss continued in the quarter, store-level operating profit swung to $26.1 million from a loss in the prior-year quarter. 30 million customers have purchased from Luckin, marking an increase of 413.4% from 6 million a year ago.

Minecraft is on the brink of 300 million registered users in China, its local publisher Netease announced at an event this week. That’s a lot of players, but not totally unreasonable given the game is free-to-play in the country with in-game purchases, so users can easily own multiple accounts. Outside China, the game has sold over 180 million paid copies, according to gaming analyst Daniel Ahmed from Niko Partners.

Xiaomi founder Lei Jun is returning a huge favor by backing a long-time friend. Xpeng Motors, the Chinese electric vehicle startup financed by Alibaba and Foxconn, has received $400 million in capital from a group of backers who weren’t identified except Xiaomi, which became its strategic investor. The marriage would allow Xpeng cars to tap Xiaomi’s growing ecosystem of smart devices, but the relationship dates further back. Lei was an early investor in UCWeb, a browser company founded by He and acquired by Alibaba in 2014. A day after Xiaomi’s began trading in Hong Kong in mid-2018, He wrote on his WeChat feed that he had bought $100 million worth of Xiaomi shares (in Chinese) in support of his old friend.

China Roundup: facial recognition lawsuit and cashless payments for foreigners

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, a lawsuit sparked a debate over the deployment of China’s pervasive facial recognition; meanwhile, in some good news, foreigners in China can finally experience cashless payment just like locals.

China’s first lawsuit against face scans

Many argue that China holds an unfair advantage in artificial intelligence because of its citizens’ willingness to easily give up personal data desired by tech companies. But a handful of people are surely getting more privacy-conscious.

This week, a Chinese law professor filed what looks like the country’s first lawsuit against the use of AI-powered face scans, according to Qianjiang Evening News, a local newspaper in the eastern province of Zhejiang. In dispute is the decision by a privately-owned zoo to impose mandatory facial recognition on admission control for all annual pass holders.

“I’ve always been conservative about gathering facial biometrics data. The collection and use of facial biometrics involve very uncertain security risks,” the professor told the paper, adding that he nonetheless would accept such requirement from the government for the purpose of “public interest.”

Both the government and businesses in China have aggressively embraced facial recognition in wide-ranging scenarios, be it to aid public security checks or speed up payments at supermarket checkouts. The technology will certainly draw more scrutiny from the public as it continues to spread. Already, the zoo case is garnering considerable attention. On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, posts about the suit have generated some 100 million views and 10,000 comments in less than a week. Many share the professors’ concerns over potential leaks and data abuse.

Scan and pay like a local

The other technology that has become ubiquitous in China is cashless payments. For many years, foreign visitors without a Chinese bank account have not been able to participate in the scan-and-pay craze that’s received extensive coverage in the west. But the fences are now down.

This week, two of the country’s largest payment systems announced almost at the same time that they are making it easier for foreigners to pay through their smartphones. Visitors can now pay at a selection of Chinese merchants after linking their overseas credit cards backed by Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Global Network or JCB to Tencent’s WeChat Pay.

“This is to provide travelers, holding 2.6 billion Mastercard cards around the world, with the ability to make simple and smart payments anytime, anywhere in China,” Mastercard said in a company statement.

Alipay, Alibaba’s affiliate, now also allows foreign visitors to top up RMB onto a prepaid virtual card issued by Bank of Shanghai with their international credit or debit cards. The move is a boon to the large swathes of foreign tourists in China, which numbered 141 million in 2018.

Also worth your attention

Didi’s controversial carpooling service is finally back this week, more than a year after the feature was suspended following two murders of female passengers. But the company, which has become synonymous with ride-hailing, was immediately put in the hot seat again. The relaunched feature noticeably included a curfew on women, who are only able to carpool between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. The public lambasted the decision as humiliating and discriminating against women, and Didi responded swiftly to extend the limit to both women and men. The murders were a huge backlash for the company, and it’s since tried to allay the concerns. At this point, the ride-hailing giant simply can’t afford another publicity debacle.

The government moves to stamp out monopolistic practices of some of China’s largest e-commerce platforms ahead of Single’s Day, the country’s busiest shopping festival. Merchants have traditionally been forced to be an exclusive supplier for one of these giants, but Beijing wants to put a stop to it and summoned Alibaba, JD.com, Pinduoduo (in Chinese) and other major retail players for talks on anti-competition this week.

Iqiyi, often hailed as the “Netflix of China,” reports widening net loss at $516.0 million in the third quarter ending September 30. The good news is it has added 25 million new subscribers to its video streaming platform. 99.2% of its 105.8 million user base are now paying members.

36Kr, one of China’s most prominent tech news sites, saw its shares tumble 10% in its Nasdaq debut on Friday. The company generates revenue from subscriptions, advertisements and enterprise “value-added” services. The last segment, according to its prospectus, is designed to “help established companies increase media exposure and brand awareness.”

China Roundup: TikTok stumbles in the US and Huawei shipments continue to surge

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. It’s been a very busy last week of October for China’s tech bosses, but first, let’s take a look at what some of them are doing in the neck of your woods.

TikTok’s troubles in the U.S.

The challenge facing TikTok, a burgeoning Chinese video-sharing app, continues to deepen in the U.S. Lawmakers have recently called for an investigation into the social network, which is operated by Beijing-based internet upstart ByteDance, over concerns that it could censor politically sensitive content and be compelled to turn American users’ data over to the Chinese government.

TikTok is arguably the first Chinese consumer app to have achieved international scale — more than 1 billion installs by February. It’s done so with a community of creators good at churning out snappy, light-hearted videos, highly localized operations and its acquisition of rival Musical.ly, which took American teens by storm. In contrast, WeChat has struggled to build up a significant overseas presence and Alibaba’s fintech affiliate Ant Financial has mostly ventured abroad through savvy investments.

TikTok denied the American lawmakers’ allegations in a statement last week, claiming that it stores all U.S. user data locally with backup redundancy in Singapore and that none of its data is subject to Chinese law. Shortly after, on November 1, Reuters reported citing sources that the U.S. government has begun to probe into ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly and is in talks with the firm about measures it could take to avoid selling Musical.ly . ByteDance had no further comment to add beyond the issued statement when contacted by TechCrunch.

The new media company must have seen the heat coming as U.S.-China tensions escalate in recent times. In the long term, TikTok might have better luck expanding in developing countries along China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s ambitious global infrastructure and investment strategy. The app already has a footprint in some 150 countries with a concentration in Asia. India accounted for 44% of its total installs as of September, followed by the U.S. at 8%, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.

lark

ByteDance is also hedging its bets by introducing a Slack-like workplace app and is reportedly marketing it to enterprises in the U.S. and other foreign countries. The question is, will ByteDance continue its heavy ad spending for TikTok in the U.S., which amounted to as much as $3 million a day according to a Wall Street Journal report, or will it throttle back as it’s said to go public anytime soon? Or rather, will it bow to U.S. pressure, much like Chinese internet firm Kunlun selling LGBTQ dating app Grindr (Kunlun confirmed this in a May filing), to offload Musical.ly?

Huawei is still selling a lot of phones

The other Chinese company that’s been taking the heat around the world appears to be faring better. Huawei clung on to the second spot in global smartphone shipments during the third quarter and recorded the highest annual growth out of the top-5 players at 29%, according to market analytics firm Canalys. Samsung, which came in first, rose 11%. Apple, in third place, fell 7%. Despite a U.S. ban on Huawei’s use of Android, the phone maker’s Q3 shipments consisted mostly of models already in development before the restriction was instated, said Canalys. It remains to be seen how distributors around the world will respond to Huawei’s post-ban smartphones.

Another interesting snippet of Huawei handset news is that it’s teamed up with a Beijing-based startup named ACRCloud to add audio recognition capabilities to its native music app. It’s a reminder that the company not only builds devices but has also been beefing up software development. Huawei Music has a content licensing deal with Tencent’s music arm and claims some 150 million monthly active users, both free and paid subscribers.

Co-living IPOs

danke apartment

China’s modern-day nomads want flexible and cost-saving housing as much as their American counterparts do. The demand has given rise to apartment-rental services like Danke, which is sometimes compared to WeLive, a residential offering from the now besieged WeWork that provides fully-furnished, shared apartments on a flexible schedule.

Four-year-old Danke has filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and listed its offering size at $100 million, typically a placeholder to calculate registration fees. Backed by Jack Ma-controlled Ant Financial, the loss-making startup is now leasing in 13 Chinese cities, aggressively growing the number of apartments it operated to 406,746 since 2015. Its smaller rival Qingke has also filed to go public in the U.S. this week. Also operating in the red, Qingke has expanded its available rental units to 91,234 since 2012.

Apartment rental is a capital-intensive game. Services like Danke don’t normally own property but instead lease from third-party apartment owners. That means they are tied to paying rents to the landlords irrespective of whether the apartments are ultimately subleased. They also bear large overhead costs from renovation and maintenance. Ultimately, it comes down to which player can arrange the most favorable terms with landlords and retain tenants by offering quality service and competitive rent.

Also worth your attention

  • WeChat has been quite restrained in monetization but seems to be recently lifting its commercial ambitions. The social networking giant, which already sells in-feed ads, is expanding its inventory by showing users geotargeted ads as they scroll through friends’ updates, Tencent announced (in Chinese) in a company post this week.
  • Alibaba reported a 40% revenue jump in its September quarter, beating analysts’ estimates despite a cooling domestic economy. Its ecommerce segment saw strong user growth in less developed areas where it’s fighting a fierce war with rival Pinduoduo to capture the next online opportunity. Users from these regions spent about 2,000 yuan ($284) in their first year on Alibaba platforms, said CEO Daniel Zhang in the earnings call.
  • Walmart’s digital integration is gaining ground in China as it announced that online-to-offline commerce now contributes 30% sales to its neighboorhood stores. Last November, the American retail behemoth began testing same-day delivery in China through a partnership with WeChat.