China tells teachers to quit assigning homework through WeChat

China’s education authorities are about to take some burden off parents with school-aged children. A proposal posted last week by the Department of Education in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang said teachers should be banned from using WeChat, QQ or other mobile apps to assign homework or ask parents to grade students’ assignments.

As mobile internet booms in China, phones have become an extension of daily activities, including school practices. Instead of announcing homework in class or handing out notices to students in person, teachers are now dumping assignments into WeChat groups designed to interact with parents. Many teachers are keen to exercise their power through these digital channels, asking parents to help students with problem sets and even grade their homework.

The regional call to action follows a set of national guidelines released by the Ministry of Education in October directing teachers and schools to take more responsibilities rather than shift the load onto parents. “Teachers should be accountable for their job, treat teaching seriously, correct homework with prudence and help students with care.”

Not all schools abuse digital platforms to such an extent. A Shenzhen-based parent told TechCrunch that her second-grader who attends a local public school still does much of her homework in written form and parents’ involvement is moderate.

“Different schools treat technology differently and I’m not opposed to the use of it. It’s helpful, for example, to use a digital device to learn English because much of the process involves audios and videos,” the parent said. “I think sometimes media are painting teachers and schools in such a negative light just to get attention.”

Other recommendations in the national notice include limiting the amount of online homework to reduce nearsightedness, which has become a source of concerns for parents and society at large.

The new directives also come as Beijing tries to rein in what and how private technology services are infiltrating students’ lives. In one far-reaching move, the government ordered video-game publishers to cap children’s playing time, sending shares of industry leaders Tencent and NetEase tumbling. More recently, the Ministry of Education asked schools and universities to audit apps used by teachers and students on campus in accordance with guidelines set by the regulator.

Despite the government’s intent to ease stress and unplug devices for students, education apps have flourished in China. Those that help students outperform their peers have done particularly well. Yuanfudao, a startup that offers live courses, exam prep and homework help, gained a $3 billion valuation in its latest $300 million funding round in December. Its rivals Zuoyebang and Yiqi Zuoye have similarly attracted big-name investors and sizable funds to help their young users get ahead.

China’s Didi is laying off 15% of its staff

China’s largest ride-hailing firm Didi plans to let go 15 percent of its employees or about 2,000 people this year, sources told TechCrunch. The cut comes as the beleagured transportation giant copes with a stricter regulatory environment that puts a squeeze on driver supply and backlash from two high-profile passenger murders last year.

Chief executive Cheng Wei made the announcement during an internal meeting Friday morning as he told management that Didi will scale back its non-core businesses and step up investments in key areas, including safety technology, product engineering, offline driver management and international operations.

The sources did not specify which of Didi’s business units are affected by the layoff but said Didi will add 2,500 new hires by the end of the year to work on company priorities, which will give the company a total headcount of about 13,000 staff around the world.

In addition, Didi will work to ramp up operational efficiency, an issue that Didi also addressed during a major re-organization in December. A Didi spokesperson declined to comment.

Earlier this week, Chinese tech news portal 36Kr reported that Didi lost $1.6 billion in 2018 and spent $1.67 billion on subsidies for drivers. According to an internal memo Cheng made in September, Didi lost 4 billion yuan ($590 million) in the first half of 2018 and the company had not been profitable for six years.

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Alibaba takes an 8% stake in Tencent-backed anime streaming site Bilibili

Ecommerce giant Alibaba is continuing its push into the world of youth culture after it scooped up an 8 percent stake in anime streaming and game publishing company Bilibili.

According to a securities filing on Thursday, Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace has acquired about 24 million shares in Bilibili, the Shanghai-based firm that has captured 93 million monthly users from hosting licensed anime titles, video games and user-generated content.

The financial gesture is hot on the heels of a partnership announced in December that saw the pair working to monetize Bilibili’s content assets. For one, Alibaba can help Bilibili creators sell merchandise like cosplay costumes and anime toys through Taobao’s online bazaar. Bilibili itself owns an e-store, but Taobao’s command of 700 million monthly users dwarfs its reach. 

“The partnership is great news for ACG content creators,” a Shanghai-based merchant that sells Lolita costumes on Taobao told TechCrunch, referring to the acrynom for “anime, comic and games.” The owner sells through both Taobao and Bilibili, though most sales have come from Taobao.

“We can now leverage Taobao’s gigantic platform and seasoned ecommerce operating capabilities to further help our content creators realize and improve their commercial values, thereby building a more virtuous content community and commercialization-focused ecosystem,” says Bilibili chief executive and chairman Chen Rui in a statement.

taobao acg alibaba

Screenshot: Taobao has a dedicated channel for anime, comic and gaming (ACG) items.

What Alibaba gets in return is access to China’s Generation Z. Bilibili claims that 82 percent of its users were born between 1990 and 2009. In a savvy move, Alibaba hooked up its food delivery unit Ele.me with Bilibili in December to tap a demographic of anime-watching and game-playing young people reliant on delivered meals.

Over 1.6 million content creators, including anime, comic and games (ACG) experts, were actively supporting the Taobao app and helping brands on our platform engage with consumers,” says Fan Jiang, vice president of Alibaba and president of Taobao. “Through deep cooperation with intellectual property holders and content creators, Taobao has experienced the great potential of ACG.”

Investors’ darling

Tencent and Baidu’s iQiyi have also spent big bucks to beef up their respective anime offering, but Bilibili’s flourishing youth community gives it an edge over these deep-pocketed video-streaming heavyweights and to an extent makes it an investors’ darling. The eight-year-old company is notable for being one of the rare companies that count both Alibaba and Tencent — which compete on multiple fronts spanning ecommerce to cloud computing — as their investors. Other companies that won backings from the duo include China’s largest ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing.

Last October, social media and gaming juggernaut Tencent poured nearly $320 million into Bilibili in exchange for a 12.3 percent stake. While Alibaba helps drive revenues to Bilibili’s community of creators and potentially boost their loyalty to the site, Tencent could help it save on licensing fees for games and animes.

“Tencent and Bilibili are two of the major players in the animation industry. By working with Tencent, this will intensively expand our content offering and effectively decrease our content investment in the animation copyright procurement,” Chen of Bilibili said during the company’s Q3 earnings call.

“The agreement will enable us to leverage Tencent’s primary content, particularly in licensing, co-producing and investment in anime as well as publish Tencent’s large portfolio of high-quality mobile games,” Bilibili’s chief financial officer Sam Fan added.

Apple is selling the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 in Germany again

Two older iPhone models are back on sale in Apple stores in Germany — but only with Qualcomm chips inside.

The iPhone maker was forced to pull the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 models from shelves in its online shop and physical stores in the country last month, after chipmaker Qualcomm posted security bonds to enforce a December court injunction it secured via patent litigation.

Apple told Reuters it had “no choice” but to stop using some Intel chips for handsets to be sold in Germany. “Qualcomm is attempting to use injunctions against our products to try to get Apple to succumb to their extortionist demands,” it said in a statement provided to the news agency.

Apple and Qualcomm have been embroiled in an increasingly bitter global legal battle around patents and licensing terms for several years.

The litigation follows Cupertino’s move away from using only Qualcomm’s chips in iPhones after, in 2016, Apple began sourcing modem chips from rival Intel — dropping Qualcomm chips entirely for last year’s iPhone models. Though still using some Qualcomm chips for older iPhone models, as it will now for iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 units headed to Germany.

For these handsets Apple is swapping out Intel modems that contain chips from Qorvo which are subject to the local patent litigation injunction. (The litigation relates to a patented smartphone power management technology.) 

Hence Apple’s Germany webstore is once again listing the two older iPhone models for sale…

Newer iPhones containing Intel chips remain on sale in Germany because they do not containing the same components subject to the patent injunction.

“Intel’s modem products are not involved in this lawsuit and are not subject to this or any other injunction,” Intel’s general counsel, Steven Rodgers, said in a statement to Reuters.

While Apple’s decision to restock its shelves with Qualcomm-only iPhone 7s and 8s represents a momentary victory for Qualcomm, a separate German court tossed another of its patent suits against Apple last month — dismissing it as groundless. (Qualcomm said it would appeal.)

The chipmaker has also been pursing patent litigation against Apple in China, and in December Apple appealed a preliminary injunction banning the import and sales of old iPhone models in the country.

At the same time, Qualcomm and Apple are both waiting the result of an antitrust trial brought against Qualcomm’s licensing terms in the U.S.

Two years ago the FTC filed charges against Qualcomm, accusing the chipmaker of operating a monopoly and forcing exclusivity from Apple while charging “excessive” licensing fees for standards-essential patents.

The case was heard last month and is pending a verdict or settlement.

Alibaba’s Ant Financial buys UK currency exchange giant WorldFirst reportedly for around $700M

Ant Financial, the financial services behemoth affiliated with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has made its first big move into Europe. It’s acquired London-headquartered payments company WorldFirst in a deal that sources tell us is valued at around $700 million.

(That price would also line up with multiple reports from December claiming the two were in talks for an acquisition of around £550 million, or $717 million at current exchange rates.)

This isn’t your average multi-hundred million dollar acquisition. The deal was confirmed by WorldFirst in a note to customers while Alibaba, which curiously didn’t put out an official press release, acknowledged the acquisition to us through a spokesperson.

Yet despite a relatively under-the-radar outing, the deal has potentially significant consequences. It not only underscores the strong market connections between China and Europe, but also the margin (and thus strategic) pressures that many smaller remittance companies are under in the wake of larger companies like Amazon building its own money-moving services, as well as competition from local players in Asia.

One of a number of globally active money remittance services, 15-year-old WorldFirst lets businesses and consumers move money between countries at prices that are lower than regular banks.

The company claims to have transferred over £70 billion ($90 billion) for customers since 2004, with more than one million transfers made each year. WorldFirst is a player in the competitive remittance market, in which migrant workers send money home to family, who can make transfers online or in person at WorldFirst outlets.

Ant Financial is best known for its Alipay service, which is China’s dominant mobile payment app with over 550 million registered users. Alibaba owns one-third of Ant, which is valued at as much as $150 billion, and it has been pushing to expand its empire outside of China and beyond Asia Pacific, too.

“Alipay and WorldFirst’s capabilities and international footprints are highly complementary,” WorldFirst co-founder and chief executive Jonathan Quin wrote in an internal memo obtained by TechCrunch.

According to Quin, WorldFirst will retain its brand and become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ant Financial. Many merchants in the UK already accept Alipay, which has expanded to cater for Chinese tourists spending money overseas.

“The tie-up will add WorldFirst’s international online payments and virtual account products to Alipay’s range of technology solutions,” an Ant Financial spokesperson told TechCrunch without disclosing the size of the buyout.

WorldFirst has been financed by private equity investors and, as a private company, it keeps its financial details closely held, but in August 2018 it noted that it had transferred more than $95 billion for some 160,000 customers — businesses and individuals included. A source told us its GMV was around $10 billion a year.

But sources noted that it was under pressure of its own that would have made securing a deal with Ant even more of a priority.

“That whole sector of payments from the West to China sellers for e-commerce is under massive margin pressure from Amazon going direct with its own service, plus new China based entrants PingPong, LianLian and Airwallex,” one executive very close to the remittance space told us. “WorldFirst had recently seen low to declining growth because of this.” Another source said that it had been shopping itself around.

(The Amazon reference is related to Amazon PayCode, a new service it has built with Western Union to let people in markets where Amazon has not launched a local site to pay for goods in local currencies on its platform. The deal was first announced in October last year, and has seen the two companies offering payment alternatives in places like Thailand and Kenya to remove the need to transfer payments in other ways, via Alipay or whatever transfer service a seller or buyer might use.)

The acquisition gives Ant Financial a massive international boost, and for the first time a presence in Europe, but it comes amid some stumbles for the company in its other attempts to expand internationally.

Notably, the company agreed to acquire Nasdaq-listed MoneyGram for $1.2 billion in 2017 after it won a bidding war for the global payment company. Ultimately, however, the deal was blocked by the U.S. government. Bruised by the episode, which set its plans back by a year, Ant went on to raise an enormous $14 billion funding round last summer during which time it presumably kicked off the search for a MoneyGram alternative.

While WorldFirst is based out of the UK, the company last year made a key move to expand its US operations when it was announced in August that it would acquire the retail money transfer business of San Francisco-based startup Wyre, which had built the network on blockchain technology but was selling it to focus on the other side of its business, providing currency exchange APIs to larger B2B customers.

It looked like all systems go for WorldFirst to move deeper in the US after that. But then, the company abruptly announced on February 20 that it planned to close the U.S-based business. The move may have been made to prevent a repeat of that scuppered MoneyGram acquisition.

WorldFirst is closing its business in the U.S. in a move widely seen as a precursor to its acquisition by Ant Financial

Outside of the U.S. and China, Ant Financial has aggressively expanded its presence in Asia through a series of investment deals that have seen it put $200 million into Kakao Pay in Korea, and find similar deals in Southeast Asia. The overall strategy appears to be to replicate the success of Alipay in China, where it offers mobile payments and digital financial services that cover loans, banking and wealth management.

In a show of its global ambition, Alipay just this week announced a deal to bring its payment option to U.S. Walgreens stores. A previous partnership with point-of-sale company First Data added Alipay to four million retail partners Stateside, and the company has similar deals in Europe and parts of Asia.

GoEuro rebrands as Omio to take its travel aggregator business global

European multimodal travel booking platform GoEuro has announced a change of name and destination: Its new ambition is to go global, scaling beyond its regional grounding to tackle the challenge of intercity travel internationally — hence needing a more expansive brand name.

The name it’s chosen is Omio, pronounced with the stress on the ‘me’ sound in the middle of the word.

GoEuro unveiled a new brand identity late last year — which it says now was preparing the ground for this full rebranding.

So why Omio? CEO and founder Naren Shaam tells TechCrunch the new name was chosen to be memorable, lighthearted and neutral. A word that travels inoffensively across languages was also clearly essential.

“It took a while — probably eight months — to do the search on the name,” he says. “The hard thing about the name is a few criteria we had. One was that it had to be short, easy to remember, and four letter names are just non-existent now.

“It had to be lighthearted because travel inherently comes with a lot of stress to consumers… Every time you book travel it’s a lot of anxiety and then relief after you book it etc. So we want to change that behavior to customers; saying we will take care of your journey.”

The multimodal travel startup, which was founded back in 2012, also says it’s happy to have been able to retain a ghost of its old brand — thanks to the double ‘o’ in both names — which it intends to suggestively stand in for the beginning and end of a journey.

In Europe the travel aggregator tool that’s been known since launch as GoEuro — and soon, within a matter of weeks, Omio, everywhere it operates — has some 27 million monthly users tapping into the convenience of a platform that knits together train travel, bus trips, flights and most recently ferries to offer the most comprehensive coverage available of longer distance travel options in the region.

Europe is heavily networked for transport, with multiple intercity travel options to choose from. But it is also massively fragmented across a huge mix of providers (and languages) making it challenging for travellers to navigate, compare and book across so many potential options.

Taming this complexity via a multimodal search and comparison tool that now also integrates booking for most ground-based travel options (and some flights) on one platform has been GoEuro’s mission to-date. And now it’s Omio’s tackle globally.

“Global transport is not on a single product. What we bring is way more than just air, in terms of all ground transportation,” says Shaam. “So for me the problem of how do I get from Kyoto to Tokyo, or Rio to Sao Paulo. Or somewhere in Southeast Asia in Thailand is still a global problem. And it’s not yet solved. And so for us it’s the right time to evolve the brand… It’s definitely time to step out and say we want to build a global brand. We want to be that transport product across the world where we can serve all transport globally.”

While GoEuro is in some senses a quintessentially European business — Shaam says he “couldn’t have imagined” building a multimodal transport platform out of the US, for instance, where travel is so dominated by airlines and cars — he suggests that sets the business up to tackle similar complexity elsewhere.

Putting in the hard graft of negotiating partnerships and nailing technical integrations with multiple transport providers, large and tiny, also isn’t the sort of tech business prone to fast-following platform clones. So Omio suggests competition at a global scale will most likely be piecemeal, from multiple regional players.

“When I look beyond Europe the problem that I experienced in Europe in 2010 [which inspired me to set up GoEuro] is definitely a problem I experience still globally,” he says. “So when we can figure out how to bring 100,000 remote train and bus stations plugged into a uniform, normalized product and then give a single-click mobile ticket that works everywhere why not actually solve this problem globally?”

That translates into having “the engineering and the product and the means” to scale what GoEuro has done for travel in Europe internationally, moving to other continents with their own blend and mix of transport options and challenges.

Shaam notes that Omio employs more than 200 engineers within a company that has a staff of 300 — emphasizing also that the partnerships plus all the engineering that sits behind the aggregator’s front end take a lot of resource to maintain.

“I agree it is such a European startup. And it has served us well to get 27M monthly users traveling across Europe. Last year alone we served something like eight million unique routes. So the density of routes that we have is great. We already have global users; we have users from 100+ countries,” he says, adding: “If you look at Europe, European companies are starting to go on the global stage more and more now.

“You can see Spotify being one of the largest global tech companies coming out of Europe. You’ve seen some in the fintech space. Industries where there’s heavy fragmentation in Europe allow us to build global products because Europe is a great product market.”

GoEuro — now Omio — founder and CEO, Naren Shaam

On the international expansion horizon, Omio says its considering expanding into South America, Asia and the U.S. Although Shaam says no decisions have yet been taken as to the regions and markets it might move into first.

He also readily accepts the goal of building a global travel aggregator is a long term mission, with the partnerships, engineering and legacy technology integrations that will have to underpin the expansion all requiring time (and money) to work through.

There’s also no suggestion that Omio intends to offer a more lightweight transport proposition as a strategy to elbow its way into new markets, either.

“If we go into the U.S. the goal is not to just offer another airline product,” he says. “There’s enough websites out there that do exactly that. So we will offer something different. And our competition will also be regional companies that offer something similar in each market.”

In a year’s time, Shaam says he hopes to have further deepened the platform’s coverage and usage in Europe — noting there are more transport dots to connect in markets including Portugal, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, plus parts of Eastern Europe (as well as “very heavily fragmented” bus providers in Spain and Italy).

By then he says he also wants to have “a clear answer to what are the two next big continents we want to expand into and have people that are ready to do that”.

So connecting the dots of intercity travel is very evidently a far slower-paced business than heavily VC-backed innercity transport plays — which have attracted multiple billions in funding in very short order thanks to fast usage velocity and revenue growth vs GoEuro’s modest (by contrast) ~$300M.

Nonetheless Shaam is convinced the intercity opportunity is still “a big market”. Perhaps not as massive as micromobility, ride-hailing and so on but still big and relatively under-invested, as he sees it.

So how will GoEuro as Omio approach scaling a travel business that is, necessarily, so very grounded in fixed and non-uniform transport infrastructure? He suggests the business will be able to draw on what is already years of experience integrating with transport providers of various types and sizes to support the new global push.

It’s developed what he describes as an “a la carte” menu of products for different sized travel providers — arguing this established menu of tools will help scale into new markets in fresh geographies, even while conceding there are other aspects of the business that will not be so easily replicable.

“Over time we built a lot of tooling that adapts to the different types of suppliers. So, for example, if you’re a large state-owned operator… that has very different systems built for decades basically vs a tiny bus company that runs from Naples to Positano that nobody even knows the name of or no technology it stands on we have different products that we offer to each of them.

“We have all the tooling built out so it’s basically ‘plug and play’ for us to do. So this thing doesn’t change. That’s portable.”

What will be new for Omio is international product market fit, with Shaam saying, for example, that it won’t necessarily be able to rely on the same sort of network effects it sees in Europe that help drive usage.

He also notes mobile penetration rates will differ — again requiring a different approach to serving customer needs in new regions such as Latin America.

“It’s not quick,” he concedes. “That’s why we’d rather launch now because I can’t tell you that in three months we’ll have had four more continents covered, right. This is a long term play but we’ve raised enough capital to make sure we’re here for that long term journey.”

“We have a name that people know and we can build technology,” he adds, expanding on what Omio can bring to the table as it tries to sell its platform to travel providers everywhere. “We’ve worked with 800+ suppliers. So from a commercial standpoint, people know who we are and how much scale we can bring in terms of their fixed cost businesses — so we can sell a lot of tickets for all of them. We can bring international tourists from a global audience. And we can really fill up seats. So people know that you put your supply on our product and we instantly scale because the existing demand is just so large.”

The Berlin-based startup closed a $150M funding round last fall so it’s not short of immediate resources to support the new hires it’ll be looking to add to start building out its global roadmap.

Shaam also notes it brought in more Asian capital with its last round, which he says he hopes will help “with this globalization capital”. Most of the investors it added then are also geared towards longer term returns vs traditional VC, he adds.

Omio is not currently in the process of raising another funding round, according to Shaam, though he confirms it does plan to raise more in future as it works towards the global vision of a single platform to help travellers move all over the world.

“The amount of capital that’s gone into intercity transport is tiny compared to innercity transport,” he notes. “That means that if you’re still going after a global problem that we want to solve that means that we need to raise capital at some point in the future. For now we’re just very comfortable with what we have but it doesn’t mean that we’ll stop.”

One potential future market Omio is likely to approach only very cautiously is China.

A b2c partnership with local travel booking platform Qunar, which GoEuro inked back in 2017, to link Chinese consumers with European travel opportunities, means Omio has a commercial reason to be sensitive of any moves into that market.

The complexity and challenge of going into China as an outsider is of course another major reason to go slow.

“I want to say very carefully that China is a market we need a lot more time to understand before we go into, as I think there’s enough lessons learned from all the tech companies from the West,” says Shaam readily. “It’s not going to be a rushed decision. So in that case the partnership with have with Qunar — I don’t see any changes in the near term because going into China is a big step for us. And it’s not an easy decision anyway.”

Indonesia-focused Intudo Ventures raises new $50M fund

Intudo Ventures, a VC firm focused on Indonesia, has closed a new $50 million fund. This is Intudo’s second fund to date following its $20 million debut last year.

The firm is a relative newcomer to Southeast Asia but a key differentiator is that it is solely focused on Indonesia, which is the world’s fourth most populated country with over 260 million people and the region’s largest economy.

It is also the dominant market for tech and the internet in the region. According to a much-cited report from Google and Singapore sovereign fund Temasek, Indonesia’s online economy will grow to $100 billion by 2025 from $8 billion in 2015. That’s a dominant chunk of the Southeast Asia market, which is predicted to reach $240 billion as a whole.

A Google-Temasek report forecasts significant growth across Southeast Asia, with Indonesia taking the lead

Another factor that separates Intudo from other firms is its approach to working with local partners. Most VC firms in Southeast Asia tend to source their LPs from Singapore, West Asia and China with a smattering of local families or conglomerates who wield influence on the ground in markets. In Indonesia, Intudo claims to have over 20 families among its LP base, as opposed to the conventional approach of two or three.

However, founding partners Eddy Chan and Patrick Yip told TechCrunch that the majority of its capital comes from U.S-based LPs, with no investor providing more than 10 percent of the fund’s capital. Some of its overseas backers include Founders Fund, the family office of former Walgreens CEO Greg Wasson, Japan’s World Innovation Lab and Taiwan’s CTBC Group, according to the partners.

“Indonesia is a market we feel is dominated by about 100 core families, we are back by 20-some of the most influential groups in the market,” Chan said in an interview.

The goal is to help Intudo’s portfolio companies tap into opportunities from those LPs and their business holdings.

“When we sign up LPs, first and foremost we want to be able to engage the network and resources for the startup we invest into. We find a fit and hopefully provide some kind of unfair advantage… a leg up when they want to compete,” Chan explained.

“We’re not biased to any one family, we invest in a purely financially-driven manner,” added Yip.

Intudo Ventures’ founding partners Eddy Chan and Patrick Yip

Yip provides the on-the-ground presence having returned to Indonesia from the U.S. 15 years ago. Chan is in the U.S. for eight months a year, he said, where he spends much of his time seeking out Indonesia talent studying in the U.S. for prospective hiring or incubating new projects.

“We have a long-term view that we either place them in our portfolio, found companies with them or put them in with a Bain, or McKinsey type company,” Chan explained.

Yip formerly operated an investment firm associated with Goldman Sachs and spent time at retail giant CP, Chan, meanwhile has spent time as an investor and co-founded smart light company Leeo before leaving in 2015 following a restructuring.

The fund itself is focused on Series A and pre-A with some Series B with an initial investment of $500,000-$5 million with more for follow-on rounds, the partners explained. But the focus is on doubling down on a few prospects, with the fund slated to do around 12-15 deals through its lifecycle.

Chan said that when it comes to going beyond the fund’s deal range the thesis is to involve its LPs who, he claimed, are keen to invest in Indonesia further down the line. With just a year since Intudo’s debut fund closed that theory has not been tested yet although one early bet, BeliMobilGue just raised a $10 million Series A. Others in the portfolio include co-working venture CoHive, payment gateway company Xendit and fitness startup Ride Jakarta.

For now, at least, Intudo intends to remain laser-focused on Indonesia.

“Down the road will we add other countries? Time will tell,” Chan said. “This is our bread and butter and where we’re strong and what we have committed to for our LPs.”

It isn’t just apps. China’s cinemas broke records during Lunar New Year

China celebrated Lunar New Year last week as hundreds of millions of people travelled to their hometowns. While many had longed to see their separated loved ones, others dreaded the weeklong holiday as relatives awkwardly caught up with them with questions like: “Why are you not married? How much do you earn?”

Luckily, there are ways to survive the festive time in this digital age. Smartphone usage during this period has historically surged. Short video app TikTok’s China version Douyin noticeably took off by acquiring 42 million new users over the first week of last year’s holiday, a report from data analytics firm QuestMobile shows. Tencent’s mobile game blockbuster Honor of Kings similarly gained 76 percent DAUs during that time, according to another QuestMobile report.

People also hid away by immersing themselves in the cinema during the Lunar New Year, a movie-going period akin to the American holiday season. This year, China wrapped up the first six days of the New Year with a record-breaking 5.8 billion ($860 million) yuan box office, according to data collected by Maoyan, Alibaba’s movie ticketing service slated for an initial public offering.

The new benchmark, however, did not reflect an expanding viewership. Rather, it came from price hikes in movie tickets, market research firm EntGroup suggests. On the first day of Year of the Pig, tickets were sold at an average of 45 yuan ($6.65), up from 39 yuan last year. That certainly put some price-sensitive audience off — though not by a huge margin as there wasn’t much to do otherwise. (Shops were closed. Fireworks and firecrackers, which are traditionally set off during the New Year to drive bad spirits away, are also banned in most Chinese cities for safety concerns.) Cinemas across China sold 31.69 million tickets on the first day, a slight decline from last year’s 32.63 million.

Dawn of Chinese sci-fi

wandering earth 2

Image source: The Wandering Earth via Weibo

Many Chinese companies don’t return to work until this Thursday, so the box office results are still being announced. Investment bank Nomura put the estimated total at 6.2 billion yuan. What’s also noticeable about this year’s film-inspired holiday peak is the fervor that sci-fi The Wandering Earth whipped up.

American audiences may find in the Chinese film elements of Interstellar’s space adventures, but The Wandering Earth will likely resonate better with the Chinese audience. Adapted from the novel of Hugo Award-winning Chinese author Liu Cixin, the film tells the story of the human race seeking a new home as the aging sun is about to devour the earth. A group of Chinese astronauts, scientists and soldiers eventually work out a plan to postpone the apocalypse — a plot deemed to have stoke Chinese viewers’ sense of pride, though the rescue also involves participation from other nations.

The film, featuring convincing special effects, is also widely heralded as the dawn of Chinese-made sci-fi films. The sensation gave rise to a wave of patriotic online reviews like “If you are Chinese, go watch The Wandering Earth” though it’s unclear whether the discourse was genuine or have been manipulated.

Alibaba’s movie powerhouse

This record-smashing holiday has also been a big win for Alibaba, the Chinese internet outfit best known for ecommerce and increasingly cloud computing. Its content production segment Alibaba Pictures has backed five of the movies screened during the holiday, one of which being the blockbuster The Wandering Earth that also counts Tencent as an investor.

Tech giants with online streaming services are on course to upend China’s film and entertainment industry, a sector traditionally controlled by old-school production houses. In its most recent quarter, Alibaba increased its stake to take majority control in Alibaba Pictures, the film production business it acquired in 2014. Tencent and Baidu have also spent big bucks on content creation. While Tencent zooms in on video games and anime, Baidu’s Netflix-style video site iQiyi has received wide acclaim for house-produced dramas like Yanxi Palace, a smash hit drama about backstabbing concubines that was streamed over 15 billion times.

Seeing all the entertainment options on the table, the Chinese government made a pre-emptive move against the private players by introducing a news app designed for propaganda purposes in the weeks leading to the vacation.

“The timing of the publishing of this app might be linked to the upcoming Chinese New Year Festival, which the Chinese Communist Party sees as an opportunity and a necessity to spread their ideology,” Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of German think tank MERICS, told TechCrunch earlier. “[It] may be hoping that people would use the holiday season to take a closer look, but probably also knowing that most people would rather choose other sources to relax, consume and travel.”

No, Tencent isn’t about to burn Reddit down

Ahoy, it’s doom and gloom for Reddit after the company welcomed investment from Chinese censorship overlord Tencent.

Well, not quite.

The reality is, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. In recruiting the company behind one of the internet’s largest and vibrant social networks — chat app WeChat — and countless blockbuster games, Reddit has pulled off a major coup and banked a huge amount of cash, both of which can help it grow to the next level.

But, right now, reports in the U.S. are suggesting otherwise. You might have seen a range of negative stories surface in the past week following Reddit’s latest round of investment — first reported by TechCrunch — which is led by Tencent and values the company at $3 billion.

Triggered by a Gizmodo story last week, fear is being stoked that a deal with the “Chinese censorship powerhouse” could lead Reddit awry and bankrupt its morality, well, whatever of that it has left. Reddit users, not ones to be slow on humor, have already plastered the site with content that would be forbidden in China, including Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon character often used to represent Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Gizmodo referred to Tencent as “one of the most important architects of the Great Firewall,” and that’s a refrain that has been repeated in countless other reports.

I get it, it‘s a delicious irony; one of the lawless parts of the internet combining forces with a company that aggressively monitors and censors its users. Plus, Reddit is already blocked in China.

But, unfortunately for Gizmodo, the fears are overblown and its descriptions of Tencent are at best naive and at worst deliberately misguided.

China’s censorship system

Tencent is no “architect” of China’s Great Firewall internet censorship program. It’s one of a number of companies which, from its success, finds itself a prominent target for the government with little room to wiggle out.

Tencent sits in an awkward position, for sure. It is the largest internet company in China — it became the first $500 billion firm in Asia last year — and that makes it a core part of the government’s ongoing campaign to control Chinese internet space.

After an unprecedented crackdown on the Twitter-like service Weibo in 2012, when the government closed down comments for three days, China’s censorship became more proactive rather than reactive. That approach leaves fewer traces, for one thing, and it allows Beijing to shift responsibility to the platforms themselves, which fear the repercussions of angering authorities.

That’s to say that today’s dynamic sees China’s top internet companies, including Tencent, instructed to monitor the content produced by their users and, where necessary, remove it.

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman delivers remarks on “Redesigning Reddit” during the third day of Web Summit in Altice Arena on November 08, 2017 in Lisbon, Portugal. Web Summit.

Censoring social networks is one thing, but censoring WeChat — Tencent’s prized asset and China’s top messaging app with more than a billion monthly users — is another thing altogether. Tencent has been roundly (and rightly) criticized for implementing a range of “silent” blocks that, for some terms, prevent messages from being sent or picked up by the receiver.

Likewise, it has also purged millions of accounts from WeChat following numerous rounds of government-led initiatives that crack down on media, pornography and unsubstantiated rumors.

Those crackdowns and censorship moves are not false, but Gizmodo is painting a picture that suggests Tencent is complicit in cleaning its slate.

The truth is that the company, even a company of its size, has no choice in the matter when the Chinese government comes knocking with demands. To ignore the summons, or fail to act, would cause Tencent — a publicly listed company — serious problems that would not reflect well for shareholders. Adhering to these demands is expensive and resource-intensive, as it requires a new “content checking” division with specialist employees hired and trained. In short, it is certainly not something companies willingly opt-in to.

A rite of passage

Tencent is definitely not in control of the agenda, as anyone with an eye on tech in China can tell you. The company suffered a poor end to 2018, in part because the Chinese government decided to freeze new game licenses.

That left Tencent unable to monetize its new roster of games, a situation that saw it lose countless hundreds of millions in revenue and saw its share price drop by nearly 50 percent between March and October. The freeze has only just thawed, with a handful of licenses tentatively distributed this year.

So much for the Chinese government looking after their own.

These issues affect every tech company in China with a meaningful presence. Getting hit by government demands and censorship requests is a rite of passage for tech startups in China, like a dreaded badge of honor that shows your service has grown suitably influential to be considered a threat.

That happened to ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, the current social darling for many U.S. media. Last year, its CEO was forced to issue a groveling apology after it had “overemphasized growth and scale over quality and responsibility.”

The company resolved to increase its content checkers (read, censorship police) from 6,000 to 10,000 people, a move likely made to appease the government. Still, it was made an example of, with a number of TikTok apps removed from app stores and shuttered on the word of authorities.

Welcome to the club!

But it isn’t just Chinese companies.

Tencent became Asia’s first $500 billion company thanks to a stock rally — today it is worth around $425 billion [Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Choices

Apple, the self-proclaimed protector of freedom, removed every unlicensed VPN from its China-based App Store at the behest of the government in 2017. While, in a rare move that runs counter to its core privacy focus, it relented to state rules and agreed to store Chinese iCloud user data on Chinese soil, through a government-backed cloud service provider, no less.

The difference between Apple and the likes of Tencent and ByteDance is that the U.S. company has a choice. It entered China voluntarily and it has complied with free speech-quashing demands to keep its revenue flowing.

Tencent and ByteDance, as the biggest internet players, would have a tough time moving outside of their native China and remaining in business. Maybe, in today’s censorship-heavy era, some Chinese companies wish they had started out in Hong Kong or another domain, but few markets have the opportunity that comes with 800 million internet users.

The point is that they have no control over censorship demands and no leverage to push back. To blame them — and paint them as co-conspirators, even “architects” — is misleading.

Tencent, in fact, has a reputation as a skillful investor that can be an asset for non-Chinese companies.

Its capital and guidance helped Fortnite creator Epic Games completely revamp its business into the smash hit success that it is today. Elsewhere, Tencent is the largest single investor in Snap — CEO Evan Spiegel has said he often seeks its guidance — and its other deals include Tesla, Discord, Kik and more, none of which have resulted in the introduction of censorship.

Yes, Reddit and Tencent are strange bedfellows, but that’s exactly the point of venture capital. The best founders surround themselves with different opinions, perspectives and experiences to ensure that they are evaluating all possible strategies. Tencent can give Reddit unique insight which, for those who use it, can only be a net positive for the future health of Reddit’s business and continued service.

Sub-brands are the new weapon in China’s smartphone war

One of China’s top smartphone brands Vivo appears to have joined its fellows Oppo, Huawei and Xiaomi in setting up a new sub-brand as a softening market and heightened competition at home drive players to venture upon their original reach.

A new smartphone brand called iQoo made its debut on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, on Tuesday by greeting in English: “Hello, this is iQoo.” It also playfully encouraged people to guess how its name is pronounced, as the spelling doesn’t resonate with either Chinese or English speakers. Vivo immediately reposted iQoo’s message, calling iQoo a “new friend.”

Vivo has not further revealed its ties with iQoo, although the latter’s Weibo account is verified under Vivo’s corporate name. TechCrunch has contacted Vivo and will update the story when we have more information.

vivo iqoo

Screenshot of iQoo’s first Weibo post

Sub-brands have become a popular tactic for Chinese smartphone makers to lure new demographics without undermining and muddling their existing brand reputation. As the third-ranked player by shipments in 2018 according to research firm Counterpoint, Vivo is the only one in China’s top five smartphone companies without a subsidiary brand.

“Sub-brands can help fill the gap in parent companies,” Counterpoint’s research director James Yan told TechCrunch. “I think iQoo is a brand born for the gaming market, the online sales channel, or young consumers, similar to what Honor did to Huawei.”

Huawei cemented its top spot with solid growth in shipments last year by playing a two-pronged strategy. Its sub-brand Honor has its eyes on the mid-range and Huawei stays at the top end. Vivo’s sibling Oppo, which falls under the same electronics manufacturing outfit BBK, came up with an exclusively online brand Realme in 2018 to go after Xiaomi’s Redmi in India’s burgeoning smartphone market. Xiaomi pressed on by launching Poco for India’s high-tier market. To further solidify its multi-faceted approach, Redmi shed the Xiaomi branding in January to start operating as an independent brand focusing on cost efficiency.

These moves arrived as years of breakneck growth in China’s smartphone space comes to an end. Overall smartphone sales contracted 11 percent in 2018 according to Counterpoint, as users become more pragmatic and less likely to upgrade their handsets. Local players reacted swiftly by going global and introducing headline-grabbing features like Xiaomi’s folding screen and Honor’s pole-punch display, putting a squeeze on global players Apple and Samsung. In 2018, Huawei shored up a 25 percent market share to take the crown. Trailing behind was Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi and Apple . Samsung plunged 67 percnet to take seventh place.