Tencent chief causes stir with repost of article on China’s economy

Tencent Chairman and CEO Pony Ma Huateng attends the WAIC (World Artificial Intelligence Conference) in Shanghai, China, September 17, 2018. REUTERS / Aly Song

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SHANGHAI, May 23 (Reuters) – Pony Ma, the low-profile founder of tech giant Tencent Holdings, created a social media stir over the weekend by reposting an article on China’s economy, an unusual breaking of silence by a Chinese tech mogul on an increasingly sensitive topic.

The article, which Ma reposted early on Saturday, lamented that there were few people in China willing to speak up about the pressures facing the country’s economy and businesses.

Screenshots of Ma’s post on his WeChat “moments” feed went viral on the Twitter-like Weibo, where searches surged for his Chinese name, Ma Huateng. Many comments took the repost as an expression of frustration.

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Tencent did not respond to a request for comment.

Two people with knowledge of Ma’s WeChat moments feed told Reuters that the post was authentic. The feed would only be visible to contacts approved by Ma. WeChat is owned by Tencent (0700.HK).

Ma’s only comment on the article highlighted a line in which its author, Zhang Mingyang, said young social media users were “anti-capitalist” and embraced double standards.

“The way some netizens care about the economy is: Firms can go bankrupt, but they cannot fire staff; firms can go bankrupt, but they cannot have overtime work,” the article said. “Of course if they order delivery and it’s late by 10 minutes, they will curse, and will scold the delivery rider harsher than anyone else”.

But commented on that passage: “The description in this paragraph is very vivid.”

In the past couple years, Chinese tech company founders have avoided posting on social media or making comments that could be perceived as critical of government policy, reflecting a broader trend of tightening censorship, and self-censorship, in China.

Beijing, meanwhile, has become particularly sensitive to suggestions that its strict policies to contain COVID-19 outbreaks may be excessive given their harm to the economy.

“Ma Huateng finally spoke out about how the economy is developing! Really, everyone is very concerned about the economy but there’s nothing we can do about it!” said one Weibo user. “Now the whole society has fallen into collective silence.”

Sensitivities are also heightened ahead of a ruling Communist Party meeting late this year when President Xi Jinping is widely expected to secure a precedent-breaking third leadership term.

Some tech tycoons have come under pressure in the past for expressing criticism or publishing commentary interpreted as critical, amid a nearly two-year regulatory crackdown that has hit most of the sector’s biggest names.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma in late 2020 delivered a speech criticizing China’s financial regulators. That was followed by a chain of events resulting in the shelving of his Ant Group’s huge IPO.

Shares in Meituan (3690.HK) slumped last year after founder Wang Xing posted an ancient poem on the Fanfou social media platform that was perceived by some on social media as critical of the government and Xi.

Tencent has come under pressure both from both investors, who want it to deliver on earnings, and from local media over employee layoffs. Last week, the company reported its quarterly profit halved from a year ago and revenues stagnated. read more

Tencent investors did not seem worried by Ma’s post. Its shares di lui dipped 1.7% on Monday, against a 1.4% fall in the Hang Seng index.

($ 1 = 6.6665 Chinese yuan renminbi)

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Reporting by Sophie Yu, Yingzhi Yang in Beijing, Josh Ye in Hong Kong and Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Editing by Tony Munroe and Edmund Klamann

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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