Can someone knock Tencent, Alibaba off their perch?

By HARJEEV SINGH KANDHARI

As Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Tencent Holdings Ltd approach their 20th birthdays, will they be dislodged by the new generation of Internet start-ups in China? Perhaps, ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing, smartphone maker Xiomi Corp or Meituan-Dianping, which delivers food and other services, may knock them off their perch.

As chairman of a venture capital firm, I am always looking at start-ups, and given my nearly two decades of experience in China, it seems a natural fit for me to look there as well. When I was last in China, I spoke to some of the players there to see if there really was anyone that could take on the “Big Two” in China. And I came back with a fervent ‘No’ to the question of the Big Two being knocked off their perch. So, why is this? There are three main reasons. First, Tencent and Alibaba have assiduously invested in the next generation of technology companies. Tencent alone has a portfolio of more than 600 stakes and holdings across a range of sectors and industries. For example, Didi — the company that virtually kicked Uber Technologies Inc out of China — has the Big Two both as shareholders.

Second, the giants have built not just conglomerates, but ecosystems. Whether your app is selling music or restaurant reviews, you need traffic, which means plenty of start- ups that are perfectly happy to work on their platforms. This symbiotic relationship is important to keeping start-ups on their side, and turning them into revenue-spinners and investments.

Ultimately, Alibaba and Tencent want to keep users on their platforms as long as possible — and the more entertaining apps they have, the easier that is to achieve.

The power of the platforms can also be seen if they don’t support you. One of the reasons that Uber

failed in China was that the Tencent platform didn’t effectively support its and lent its support to Didi instead — its own portfolio company.

Third is political. Beijing prefers to regulate a few big players rather than shoals of unruly ones.

Peer-to-peer lending, for example, offers a graphic illustration of what can happen when multiple players are unleashed: The sector has been hit by Ponzi schemes, evaporating funds of angry investors. Hence, the People’s Bank of China continues to clamp down on the financial technology sector, moving last week to require balances held in customers’ electronic wallets to be lodged in a central custody account.

Moreover, Beijing also prefers a tight band of champions, so that the country can forge ahead in areas prioritised by the state, such as artificial intelligence.

But one never knows. A wild card may still emerge! Having said that, I am sure the duo look sufficiently entrenched to celebrate a few more birthdays as leaders of the Chinese Internet!

  • Harjeev Singh Kandhari is the CEO of UK-headquartered tyre manufacturer Zenises Group and chairs venture capital firm Walpole Capital.