Ma Huateng: a scorpion who stays in the shadows

Ma Huateng, the co-founder of Chinese internet giant Tencent, lacks the profile of his namesake and rival at Alibaba, Jack Ma, but his aims are no less ambitious.

“It’s hard to overstate how deeply embedded Tencent’s products are in the lives of its nearly one billion users in China,” says Robert Hackett on Fortune. WeChat, Tencent’s flagship social-media app, is ubiquitous throughout the country, and its gaming franchises, such as Honour of Kings, draw over 200 million players a month.

“In gaming, messaging, banking and more, Tencent has made itself indispensable.” Last November, Tencent became the first Asian firm to surpass a $500bn market cap, becoming more valuable than Facebook in the process. Founder Ma Huateng’s 8.6% stake in the business means his personal wealth more than doubled in 2017 and it now stands at more than $50bn.

Shunning the limelight

Ma Huateng, known as Pony Ma in English as Ma is Chinese for horse, spent the summer jockeying with Jack Ma of Alibaba for the title of China’s richest man, says Russell Flannery for Forbes. Yet the horse race between the tech chiefs – who are not related – belies important differences. “Alibaba is best known for… the outgoing style of its high-profile chairman” while Tencent’s leader is a far lower-key figure with an engineering background.

Ma Huateng has a reputation for being elusive, noted Dorinda Elliott for Fast Company in 2014. He is reluctant to give interviews. Even analysts in Hong Kong covering Tencent are not sure whether he lives in the city or across the border in Shenzhen, where Tencent is headquartered. The “one attribute seemingly sanctioned for public consumption – and, therefore, the one that is heard over and over – is that he is a ‘computer geek’”. Indeed Ma is such a geek that he met his wife, Wang Danting, after three months of chatting to her on QQ, a messaging app that he created at the start of his tech career, reports Bloomberg.

An inspired move

Ma, the son of a port manager, studied computer science at Shenzhen University before getting a job developing paging software that earned him the equivalent of $176 a month. In 1998, he then founded Tencent with a university classmate and three others.

The firm first had success with a messaging service called QQ and a number of online games, while also trying and failing to challenge Alibaba in online retail. But Ma’s most inspired move was a push into the mobile social-media market in 2011.

“Ma created two teams of engineers… Unbeknown to them, both were given the same instructions and pitted against each other,” says Elliott. The result was the app that became WeChat.

Ma is “utterly strategic” in his thinking and highly disciplined, says Louise Lucas in the Financial Times. “Some people describe him as a scorpion: he will wait and then strike,” tech analyst Matthew Brennan tells her.

A member of China’s National People’s Congress, “he is nearly always on message”, adds Lucas. But in China “government surveillance is axiomatic”, which has provoked worry about what Tencent is doing with “one of the biggest troves of data on the planet”.

As Tencent is going global at a time when regulators worldwide are growing more sceptical of big tech, Ma must expect further scrutiny. “It’s tough to stay in the shadows when you sit atop a goliath… keeping a low profile is only going to get harder.”