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.
This is all still fairly common in China, a country where public relations is often equivalent to stonewalling. But China's Internet industry doesn't need feel-good stories in order to be noticed: It is becoming increasingly competitive with the rest of the world—and Tencent, which was recently valued at more than $139 billion on the Hong Kong stock exchange, is about to become its breakout star. "Chinese companies are much more innovative [than U.S. companies] in integrating social media, gaming, and e-commerce to make an amazing user experience," says Sun Baohong, associate dean of global programs at Beijing-based Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.
True, Chinese Internet companies have some inherent advantages: Facebook is banned in the country, and Google retreated from it. But Tencent's success can't be pinned on that handicap. The company embraced mobile years before Facebook, and has built a platform, used by 355 million active users, that functionally offers every popular service that Americans are familiar with—including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Zynga, all wrapped up in one app. It keeps adding new functions at a fast clip, such as a new Uber-like taxi finder that was used 21 million times in the first few weeks.
And now it's expanding beyond China. Tencent has already started exploring international markets beyond China's borders, with notable success in Southeast Asia and India. It has funded a number of small American startups and acquired or taken stakes in big gaming companies, while recasting its popular app for an international audience. "Will Tencent join the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter?" says Aditya Rathnam, cofounder of Kamcord, a San Francisco startup that Tencent invested in. "They already are in that league. The rest of the world just doesn't know it."
But to truly make it in the West, Tencent will have to overcome a hurdle no other global tech giant faces: It has to act, at least in public, as two essentially separate companies. Inside China, Tencent is everything it must be: historically aggressive, unhesitant to copy others' work, and very close to the government and its attendant propagandists. But outside China, Tencent will have to simultaneously engage with a world that doesn't take kindly to any of that. For now, its coping strategy may explain why Ma and Tencent's other top executives generally refuse to talk to the press: Their answers to difficult political questions could either enrage Beijing or turn off American readers. Better to keep silent.
If Tencent nails this balancing act, it could become the East's breakaway tech giant, changing the entire global dynamic of Internet players and how they compete. But none of this is up for discussion during my tour at Tencent. No bosses will be seen. I am not even allowed to glimpse inside the rooms where Tencent coders produce their hit products. On my way out of the building, I point out a book on a table in the lobby that profiles some of the company's young creative people, and suggest these would be interesting types for me to interview. My PR host snaps, as if I have been looking through some top-secret documents: "That is only for internal consumption!"
Tencent founder Pony Ma is the richest man in China, worth some $13 billion, but he may be the least known multibillionaire in the tech world. The one attribute seemingly sanctioned for public consumption—and therefore, the one heard over and over—is that he is a "computer geek." His personal life is a mystery. Even Tencent analysts in Hong Kong aren't able to say whether he lives there or across the border in Shenzhen, where his company is based—or both.
That's why it was a big moment when, in November, he took to the stage at his Shenzhen headquarters for his annual WE ("We Evolve") summit. It's a conclave of business leaders and IT experts convened to discuss technology and the future, and he appeared as a clean-cut guy in a shiny gray suit. "When I was little," he told the crowd in a message captured on video, "I wanted to be an astronomer, but that didn't happen."
This trope—tech billionaire as aspiring space cadet—is a recurring one: Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk share a similar passion. At the event, Ma described how he and a few fellow enthusiasts once dreamed of setting up an Internet-connected observatory, so that they could study the stars remotely even on the most polluted, gray-sky days. A few years later, a colleague actually pulled it off: The man bought a house on a mountaintop in southern China, built the station, and enabled anyone to plug in. "I thought, that is magical," Ma said, with a long pause for effect. "At Tencent, we may be businessmen, but we are still chasing our IT, our science. We are still striving to create something really cool, trying to create things we couldn't even imagine without our new technologies. I am still clinging to this enthusiasm."
Pony's birth name is Ma Huateng; his Chinese surname, Ma, means horse, and like many people in the country, he's adopted an English name. He was born in southern China, in the middle of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, and grew up to become very much a product of the modern Chinese evolution. He entered Shenzhen University just a few months after the crackdown on a student movement that swept across the country in 1989. But change was coming. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had unleashed the country—not to pursue political ideals, but to chase capitalist-style profits. It was a time of pragmatism and capitalist drive, and China's best and brightest were going into business, or, as the local saying went, "jumping into the sea." Ma chose computer science.
After graduation, Ma worked at a telecom company. But he saw opportunity in China's new economic landscape, so he and a few university buddies founded Tencent in 1998 with a desktop-computer instant messaging product called OICQ. The technology was almost identical to one by an Israeli company called ICQ, and when that seemed problematic, Tencent changed the name to QQ. It became a huge hit with young Chinese who eagerly wanted to communicate with each other. "Long before Facebook came along, Tencent basically created the whole social networking thing," says one investment banker who has worked closely with the company.
Tencent originally made money through advertising and monthly fees for premium QQ users. In 2004, the year Tencent went public in Hong Kong, it launched an online gaming platform and started selling virtual goods, weapons, and gaming power, as well as emoticons, extra storage space, and ringtones. "Tencent is great at monetizing eyeballs," says Jeff Walters, partner and managing director in the Boston Consulting Group's Beijing office. "That's their core competency. They are making tons of money by scraping together pennies, from tiny transactions." Even as its QQ messaging app and a spinoff QQ email continued to grow, Tencent became the biggest gaming company in China, leading a surge in mass, interactive games.
As Tencent rose, so did China's Internet industry. Much like the American scene—with Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google moving on each other's turf—China has its own jockeying big four: Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and Sina. Each has enjoyed hits in search, social, and gaming, and regularly launch products that directly overlap. Tencent has had many victories against its rivals, though its greatest failure came against Alibaba, a sort of eBay and Amazon fusion, which controls some 45% of all Chinese e-commerce. Tencent tried to win away customers with a service called PaiPai, but it never attracted more than 10% of the market.
But no matter. Ma's coup was his bet on mobile. When Chinese downloads of mass interactive games on PCs flagged, and sales of mobile smartphones started taking off a couple of years ago, Tencent began shifting a bulk of its engineers onto mobile development. "Though we all had smartphones, there were no instant messaging apps," says Genie Lin, a 30-year-old mobile product manager at Tencent in Guangzhou, who the company made available for an interview after months of discussions. She says most of the company's developers are several years younger than her. "We are users ourselves, we are our own customers, and we decided we needed that."
To develop new products, Ma created two teams of engineers: one in Shenzhen (drawing from the group that originally created QQ), and a second in Guangzhou. Unbeknownst to them, both were given the same instructions and pitted against each other—much like Microsoft had been famous for doing in the Bill Gates era. After two months, Lin says, the Guangzhou team emerged from a "little black room" with an app for text messaging and group chat. "We gave our app to Pony and Martin [Lau, Tencent's president], and they said, ‘Hey, that's cool!'"
The app became Weixin, which launched in January 2011. The company has added functions to the app practically on a monthly basis ever since, from the ability to shake your phone and see who is nearby—often used as a digital booty call, which spurred a sharp uptick in users—to a walkie-talkie function and a voice-to-message service, which allows you to essentially talk for free. Building on Tencent's enormous monthly QQ user base of 810 million, Weixin now has more than 355 million active users, more than tripling its user base from 2012. Its new e-finance function was used 40 million times during Chinese New Year to exchange "red packets," traditional gifts of cash-stuffed envelopes. And it's now even rolling out a Chinese version of Candy Crush Saga on both Weixin and QQ. "They have as close to a stranglehold over the Chinese market as is possible, and their leverage is only increasing," says one Silicon Valley tech investor. "No one else has that kind of power."
Internet products like these—offering news, freedom, community, and transparency—have huge social implications in China. Dai Mai, a taxi driver that I hail using Tencent, tells me that Weixin has changed his life. He says he has met half his friends on the service. "I'll shake my phone and find a neighbor and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing? I'm cooking dinner, come on over!'" says Dai. "Normally his door would be closed, and you would have no idea who he is or what he's doing."
Such connections are potentially threatening to the Communist Party, which has been scrambling to control the Internet and keep people from discussing taboo topics or, worse, gathering together to take on a cause. News that's embarrassing to the government, such as a 2011 train crash that killed dozens of people, now spreads across China in a way never known before. To counter this, according to the official press, Beijing has enlisted some 2 million people across China to monitor the Internet and search for banned words. Chinese Internet companies, Tencent included, employ hundreds if not thousands of their own censors, whose job is to block illegal, anti-government posts.
The government last summer issued tough new regulations: Internet users who make defamatory comments that are visited by 5,000 users or reposted more than 500 times can face up to three years in prison. The new rules have been devastating to Twitter-like microblogging sites (for which Sina had been the dominant player); users dropped by 9% last year. But this appears to have helped boost Tencent's Weixin, which is based on private conversations among closed circles of friends, and is thus seen as a safer space. But is it? Probably not. "Whatever Tencent can see, the Chinese government can see," says Rebecca MacKinnon, a Chinese Internet expert and senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.
And companies like Tencent do fall in line; they have no real choice. In late 2011, the government convened a meeting of China's top 39 tech companies, which all signed a joint statement saying "Internet companies must strengthen their self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline." Ma is a savvy businessman who knows he must play the political game as much as his government demands. When a reporter asked him about censorship at a tech conference in Singapore, he gave a reply that would have pleased China's most conservative of censors: "Lots of people think they can speak out and that they can be irresponsible. I think that's wrong," Ma said. "There should be order if the development of the cyberworld is to be sustainable." Last year, Ma was appointed a deputy to the National People's Congress, China's obedient parliament.
This kind of coziness isn't news in China, but outside the country, any whiff of it causes trouble—and Tencent's self-censorship problems bubble up with semi-regularity. In January, when international Weixin users typed the words "Southern Weekend," they received an error message saying those words were "restricted." (Southern Weekend is a Chinese newspaper that has been fighting censorship.) Users complained loudly, and Tencent called the problem a "technical glitch" and promised to "improve the product features and technological support to provide better user experience."
Will such political considerations inhibit Tencent's international ambitions? No high-tech Chinese company has fully broken into the U.S. before. But Tencent is forging ahead, steadily and silently, preparing to be the test case.
With one word in 2012, Tencent announced its philosophy of global expansion—and that word was "WeChat," the friendly English name it gave its international version of Weixin. WeChat, an app with many of Weixin's most popular chat functions, was marketed aggressively across Southeast Asia, and results were strong: It gained more than 100 million users outside China by last summer, and it was the second-most-downloaded app in India in 2013.
But despite WeChat not being so explicitly Chinese, the shadow of the Chinese government has followed it. India's government has expressed concern that the app poses a "security threat." Tibetan activists outside China tell their community to switch to other messaging services. Hu Jia, a Chinese dissident, who has claimed that Chinese officials knew about things that he had communicated only on WeChat, has called it "a monitoring weapon in your pocket."
In the U.S., for now, WeChat has mostly been adopted by Chinese expats who use it to talk to friends back home. And following the scandal over the U.S. National Security Agency spying on emails—in which American tech companies played a role, but can at least oppose such efforts publicly—American users may be a hard sell on an app with this much government contact. "The difference is that here in the U.S., at least there are some legal controls," says Internet expert Mackinnon. "In China, if the State Security people ask for something, they just get access."
It's not clear how much all this will stymie Tencent's efforts in the U.S., largely because it isn't clear what Tencent's U.S. plan is. David Wallerstein, a Chinese-speaking tech entrepreneur, opened the Tencent office in a converted church in Palo Alto in 2007. A Tencent spokesman said he is "quite reticent to speak to any media," which is certainly true: After months of requests from Fast Company, he finally agreed to speak—though the publicist said he would limit the discussion to topics such as "why we are unique." After many delays, though, he backed out entirely. The publicist explained that, in the process of preparing for the interview, he'd written down thoughts that he ultimately decided should become a memo sent out to his own staff instead.
For now, Tencent's public moves in the U.S. tell a cautious tale of small-time acquisitions and investments. Mostly, the company seems interested in startups whose technologies might be useful to Tencent back home. It participated in a $22 million funding last fall for Plain Vanilla Games, which had just launched QuizUp, a super successful multi-user mobile quiz game. "Tencent has been less focused than other investors on strategies of prevaluation and growth multipliers and profit," says Thor Fridriksson, Plain Vanilla's founder. "They say, ‘Don't worry about revenue right now; just focus on the user experience.'"
Tencent's larger investments, a $330 million stake in Epic Games and the purchase, for $400 million, of Riot Games, which produces the incredibly popular League of Legends, also seem aimed at expanding access to killer content for its Chinese users. "Having the most popular e-sport title is such a huge marketing advantage," says Piers Harding-Rolls, who leads a team of gaming industry analysts at London-based IHS Technology. "They are building their capabilities to provide an end-to-end entertainment experience."
Tencent's investments have a more ethereal role as well: Local partners become Tencent advocates, and help its stateside image. "Tencent really understands engagement, how to push the emotional factor to our users," says Chase Adam, whose philanthropic website, Watsi, received a Tencent investment. Vibhu Norby, whose social networking company Origami got early Tencent funding, says he's learned a lot from the company about how to scale up a user base and its storage architecture. "You can't support all those millions of users without incredible backend technology and creativity," he says.
If Tencent does decide to aggressively push its own products in America, its sheer size will make it an instant competitor. For example, Tencent recently offered 10 TB of free cloud storage to users—an offering 100 times larger than what Dropbox, Box, Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Drive, and even Mega (run by Kim DotCom) offer combined. If you want 10 TB of storage from Google, it will run you $100 a month.
But Silicon Valley's big shots are no doubt watching—and preparing. It's hard to imagine that Mark Zuckerberg purchased WhatsApp for as much as $19 billion without having the similar WeChat in his rear-view mirror. Bonus for Zuckerberg: Facebook is blocked in China, but WhatsApp isn't.
Not every new relationship with Tencent is a happy one. Zynga, for example, partnered with Tencent to launch its popular CityVille game in China in 2011, but the deal went south. Years later, those involved disagree over what ultimately ruined it—whether it simply didn't lead to enough revenue, or if it just hit at the wrong time—but one memory of Tencent lingers strongest: "Negotiations go on for months and months, and then by the time you get to the redline stage in the contract, all of a sudden at the last minute, they change everything," says an ex-Zynga employee with knowledge of the talks. "It's a business tactic they use to wear down their partner."
Tencent has been collecting critics from the day it launched a QQ messaging app that seemed almost identical to the existing ICQ. "Tencent's reputation in the market is well known," says the former Zynga employee. "They offer terrible terms, and they pretty much screw you over." A tech investor who knows the China market adds: "People joke they're called Tencent because you get ten cents on the dollar." In 2010, before Weixin was launched, the magazine China ComputerWorld published a cover story with the headline "Dog-fucking Tencent" that criticized the company for copying and bullying competitors. (It later apologized for causing "any adverse effects.") "Tencent is never the first to ‘eat crab,'" it wrote, using a colloquialism for trying out new things. "It looks for space in a mature market to shove its way in."
Tencent quickly responded to the magazine's attack: "Tencent is a meticulous and responsible company. QQ is a nationally recognized trademark. For many years, we have striven to provide superior Internet services to the general public and to make the lives of our users richer and more convenient." (It declined to respond on this topic to Fast Company.)
But accusations have kept coming. The Hong Kong-based company TalkBox tells a typical story. In 2011, it created a hit app that enables voice messaging—little bursts of recorded audio sent like text messages. "Our Chinese contacts told us that Tencent saw our function as the Holy Grail," says Jacqueline Chong, TalkBox's chief marketing officer. Tencent started talking to TalkBox about a possible acquisition, but at the same time, Tencent added the same voice-to-message function to its Weixin app. TalkBox lost trust in Tencent, and the talks broke down. "We were victimized," Chong says. But Tencent denies it stole anything. "TalkBox gave us some inspiration, but voice messaging was a basic function of every chat app, including WeChat," says Tencent product manager Lin. "And besides, the feature that really differentiated us from competitors was ‘People Nearby.' After that, our numbers really began to grow, and we began to exceed other apps."
This kind of action fits a well-worn narrative: Piracy, from knock-off luxury handbags to computer software, has infamously helped drive China's economic miracle over the last several decades. Ma doesn't deny that, even as he promises better. "In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share," he said at a 2011 Beijing tech conference. "In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is."
It's misguided to blame the Chinese business culture, though. American tech firms are guilty of similar brute force. Microsoft famously bullied smaller companies it saw as competitors. Facebook has been routinely accused of the same tactics. Amazon's assault against diaper e-retailer Quidsi was especially rough, as reported in the book The Everything Store: The company first warned Quidsi that it was moving in on its turf, then steeply discounted diapers and baby products—and when Quidsi's founders finally agreed to talk about a sale, and showed up to talk details, Amazon launched a new service called Amazon Mom during their meeting. (Quidsi ultimately sold in 2010.)
If this is what's awaiting Tencent across the Pacific, it has no choice but to play rough.
Before Tencent can truly devote its efforts to global expansion, there's still a big battle back home that it needs to win—and this coming year is a crucial one for the company. The Chinese Internet giants are moving aggressively into each others' turfs. "There's going to be one hell of a dog fight," says one Alibaba employee. And each punch comes with big numbers.
Alibaba, for example, bought an 18% stake in search company Sina for $586 million, and it has launched a chat app that competes directly with Tencent's Weixin. Alibaba has also been courting app developers to create games for its own platform, and letting developers 70% of the revenue—a shot at Tencent, which sells more than 850,000 apps made by outside developers, but the company has historically been the one keeping 70%. (In response, Tencent significantly adjusted its deal with developers.) Tencent, meanwhile, is trying once again to enter e-commerce and steal customers from Alibaba. It has already bought the logistics company China South City (for $195 million), a stake in e-commerce company Jingdong ($214 million), and a 20% stake in China's Yelp, Dianping (reportedly more than $500 million).
Many analysts are betting on Tencent's shrewd, professional management team. An analyst estimates that the company has more than 500 different product groups, each of which is essentially independent, keeping the business nimble. Ma and his team are extremely product-driven. He offers product tweaks and suggestions on Weixin discussion groups on a daily basis, says Lin. Developers scroll over user comments several times a day to see what needs to be fixed. "I think Alibaba is very nervous right now," says Bill Fan, a Hong Kong-based analyst with Guosen Securities: "Pony Ma is like a scorpion. He doesn't talk much but is always thinking about strategy. He hides in the back and is very focused, and then he strikes."
Ma is also tapping some top-notch international talent. Martin Lau, its president, who has computer, engineering and management degrees from the University of Michigan, Stanford, and Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, joined Tencent in 2005 from Goldman Sachs. James Mitchell, Tencent's top strategy officer, who has a degree from Oxford, was Goldman's top tech analyst in New York—and doesn't even speak Chinese. (For what it's worth, Ma's English is not fluent.) And Stephen Wang, the American-born entrepreneur who founded Rotten Tomatoes, is now running engagement for WeChat in Guangzhou.
"Tencent is going to be a huge force in the global digital economy," says Walter Driver, CEO of Scopely, a mobile entertainment network and game developer, who keeps a close eye on the Chinese tech market. "They are already a juggernaut in China. The fascinating thing to watch will be how aggressive they decide to be in asserting themselves in North America and Europe."
It isn't unfathomable that Tencent could soon arm itself with one of America's big-name services. Tencent considered acquiring Snapchat and met with CEO Evan Spiegel when he was in Asia ("he was very inspired," says a friend), but didn't bid. "Who's going to write the multibillion dollar checks for the best companies in the U.S.?" says one U.S.-based tech investor. "Tencent may become so liquid in China that they can buy anything they want in the world." That action would do all the talking.
[Editors' Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Tencent flew Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel to China for a meeting.]
A version of this article appeared in the May 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.