For sheer global commercial stakes, however, these epic clashes have nothing on the battle between the two heavyweights of the Chinese Internet industry, Alibaba and Tencent. Both have market capitalizations that hover around half a trillion U.S. dollars. Both command sectors of the rapidly growing Chinese digital landscape: Tencent owns the leading gaming and messaging platform, while Alibaba rules e-commerce. Both are aggressive investors inside and outside China. Each is the pride of their not-quite-first-tier hometowns: Alibaba of the ancient city of Hangzhou near Shanghai and Tencent of shiny-new Shenzhen across the border from Hong Kong. Finally, both touch an astounding percentage of the world’s most populous country: Alibaba’s various online marketplaces count 552 million active customers; Tencent’s WeChat messaging service recently surpassed 1 billion accounts.
For all these similarities, Tencent and Alibaba are sharply distinct companies, as different in culture, style, and approach as Apple is from Google. The duo sprang from the same era, the late 1990s, when China was discovering the Internet, and for years they built giant businesses more or less out of each other’s way. Yet as they’ve grown, each inevitably has begun to encroach on the other’s turf. Tencent, for instance, is investing in retail and financial services, sectors that are Alibaba’s strength. Alibaba in turn sees an opening in Tencent’s domain, particularly by offering mobile-messaging tools to its vast network of small-business partners.
There’s one last unavoidable comparison between the two combatants. Their top leaders share a surname, though Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma aren’t related. As the Chinese character for Ma signifies a horse — the genesis of “Pony’s” English nickname — the contest between the two stallions of the Chinese Internet literally is a two-horse race. And the trophy they’re racing for is nothing less than the No. 1 position in a digital economy that’s growing faster and evolving more dynamically than any other nation’s.
The two men, who’ve known each other for years, are quick to profess mutual respect. But as their rivalry heats up, those assertions are increasingly a prelude to damning the other with faint praise — or worse.
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