April 23, 2014
By Dorinda Elliott
A tech war has raged in China, and a winner seems ready to emerge. It’s Tencent–a controversial, $139 billion company with nearly a billion users, which functions like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Uber all rolled into one. Now it’s gunning for global expansion.
China’s most powerful Internet company is headquartered in a bland, glassy tower in southern Shenzhen. Unlike Silicon Valley’s funky campuses, there is nothing to reveal that this might be a hub of creativity. An insurance company, perhaps? In the middle of its nondescript, corporate lobby, an information desk stands next to the only sign of personality: a pair of giant plush penguins, the Tencent mascot times two. Nearby, an iPad displays stats on the company’s messaging services. But when I pull out a notebook and start jotting down the numbers, the receptionist waves her hand. “Oh no, that’s not updated!” she says. “It’s just for show.”
I’m here for a “tour” of the company, but am only allowed entrance to a museum-like exhibit of Tencent products. The experience feels like a throwback to the tightly controlled Communist Party–sponsored trips reporters went on back in the 1980s, before the country really started opening up to the outside world. An attractive, young, fluent English speaker shuffles me from one screen to another. The three other public relations officers with me offer no analysis of the firm, saying they will get back to me on any questions I have. I ask about the management style of the somewhat mysterious CEO, Pony Ma, and there is an awkward pause. Then the guide brightly tells me: “It’s very equal here. We all call him Pony!”
And that’s the tour.
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