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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Ma Huateng, China's richest new man

Por Jade

He could sit at the same table with technology billionaires like Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. He is the richest man in China, with a fortune estimated at US $ 45,000 million and although his company, Tencent, is not very famous in the West, it is the largest Asian digital giant.

Ma Huateng, better known as Pony Ma, is an indisputably powerful man. Within its empire of technological platforms are video games and WeChat, popularly known as the Chinese WhatsApp. But in reality, WeChat offers almost everything: messaging, calls, mobile games, services to order taxis, food at home, make purchases online, pay bills and even make investments.

So successful has been the expansion of Tencent that a few months ago momentarily surpassed Facebook in market value. The man who treasures all the data of one billion active users per month - in a vigilant regime like China - is Pony. Ma Huateng, was born in 1971 in the southern Chinese city of Shantou. They gave him the nickname Pony because the family name "Ma" can be translated as a horse. He studied Computer Science at the University of Shenzhen and worked in several companies in the sector such as China Motion Telecom Development, before founding Tencent, along with four other friends in 1998. Member of the National People's Congress of China (the highest legislative body), Pony is cautious about his private life and makes few public appearances.

"We are big supporters of the government in terms of information security, we try to have better management, better control of the internet," the businessman told delegates participating in a technology conference in 2011. He is recognized as a skillful strategist which plans every detail of his moves. Therefore, he has a team of close advisors that make up his well-closed circle. "Some people describe it as a scorpion: wait and then attack," says Matthew Brennan, co-founder of the WeChat specialized technology consultancy, China Channel. Tencent, he says, "manages the art of building strategic alliances through acquisitions and investments" and among other reasons, its success is explained because it has a deep understanding of the needs of customers, makes long-term decisions and is not afraid of change course if necessary.

Companies such as Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu have benefited from the support the government has given them to promote national technological development, experts say. But in return, Chinese technology companies have had to strictly follow Beijing's rules in terms of monitoring and censoring content. Entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma, Li Shufu or Pony Ma, "are billionaires who have had the support of the Chinese Communist Party, they are symbols of propaganda for the ultra-ambitious goal of dominating key industries on a global scale in the next 20 years," says Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in conversation with BBC Mundo.

Although Pony Ma's career has experienced a sustained rapid rise, he has also encountered some setbacks, such as when Beijing said that one of his games, "Honor of Kings", was addictive and bad for children. So the company limited the time in which the youngest could play, preventing criticism to increase.

As other Chinese entrepreneurs have done, Pony has begun to extend its arms abroad. Tencent has participation in companies like Snap (Snapchat), Lyft, Spotify, Activision Blizzard and Tessla. But the idea of exporting WeChat itself beyond Chinese borders is not easy. "It has proven difficult for people outside of China to want to host WeChat," says Robin Brant, a BBC political correspondent in Shanghai. "The company has agreed to censor content, following the guidelines of the government's demands. There is also a lingering concern about security, because unlike messages that are sent by other applications, communications through WeChat are not encrypted," Brant adds.

According to Tim Clissold, a business and investment consultant in China, the main reason for Tencent's success is that its products meet the needs of Chinese consumers. However, the expert tells BBC Mundo that alignment with the government's strategy has helped the company in several ways. "China believes that the Internet is key for reasons of national security and social stability." But in addition, there is a topic of commercial interest in the sense of preventing the wealth generated by new technologies from ending up mostly in the United States.

The authorities "have blocked competitors for commercial or strategic reasons," says Clissold, and at the same time have generated incentives for Chinese entrepreneurs to raise capital, get financing or receive some tax incentives. The success of Tencent, seems to be "the result of the confluence between a market demand and a government strategy," Clissold adds.

Although Tencent has not announced what its next moves will be, analysts believe that a likely step is to increase its presence in the rest of Asia. But it could also continue buying shareholdings in other Western companies and developing its own technology to compete in a better position with the digital giants of the world.