Tencent Now China’s Top Company in Private Economy Triumph

Tencent Becomes China's Top Company
  • Rare case of private company overtaking state-owned enterprise
  • China’s largest company rises on mobile gaming, ad growth

Tencent Holdings Ltd. has surpassed China Mobile Ltd. to become the country’s most valuable corporation, underscoring the growing importance of a vibrant private economy over lumbering state-owned enterprise.

Tencent rose 4.2 percent to HK$210.20 in Hong Kong on Monday, reaching a market value of HK$1.99 trillion ($256.6 billion), edging past China Mobile’s HK$1.97 trillion and putting the tech company in the ranks of the world’s 10 largest public companies, including Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc. Tencent’s shares have jumped four-fold in as many years by building a lead in mobile gaming and online advertising, surpassing a roughly 20 percent advance in the Hang Seng Index.

The company’s rise exemplifies the new realities of the world’s second largest economy, where smokestack industries prepare to lay off workers while younger companies such as e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. make inroads into everything from finance to media. Private businesses, marginalized for decades by a state sector that enjoyed easy funding from government-owned banks, now play a pivotal role in hiring and innovation, and the best performers are spearheading China’s shift toward a consumption-led economy.

“China’s economic restructuring is happening faster than many have expected,” said Shen Jianguang, chief Asia economist for Mizuho Securities Asia Ltd. 

Services accounted for more than half of output last year for the first time, while consumption made up more than 70 percent of the expansion in the first half of this year. The rise of companies such as Tencent shows China can unlock still more of its growth potential by giving more market access to private companies and rolling back state monopolies, he said.

A view of Tencent's future headquarters in Shenzhen.
A view of Tencent's future headquarters in Shenzhen.
Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Since 2006, the title of China’s most valuable company has been held mainly by government-controlled industrial heavyweights such as China Mobile, Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. or PetroChina Ltd., according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Tencent arch-foe Alibaba also briefly held the title just after its 2014 debut.

Chinese internet sector stocks have been buoyed by the strategic importance the country now places on the sector. State-backed funds and enterprises are championing some of the biggest private investment rounds in companies such as Ant Financial and Didi Chuxing. President Xi Jinping, recognizing the sector’s importance to both political and economic control, has designated its top entrepreneurs key targets for party outreach.

It wasn’t always like this. For years, China’s private companies operated in the long shadow of the gargantuan state sector, deprived of capital and support. Early entrepreneurs founded nationwide brands from Wahaha mineral water to Haier appliances, paving the way for today’s captains of industry like Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s own Ma Huateng. Hungry to expand, they sought out overseas money: Alibaba gained investment from SoftBank Group Corp. and Yahoo! Inc.; Tencent won the backing of Naspers Ltd., a South African media company; Baidu Inc.’s early investors included IDG Capital Partners, according to Crunchbase.

Along with Alibaba, Tencent has now advanced to the vanguard of the private sector. Its strategy of driving revenue growth via advertising and gaming through messaging applications WeChat and QQ have brought more than 1 billion users into the fold. The company has beaten revenue and earnings estimates in all but one of the past six quarters.

The company has designs to build a Disney-like entertainment empire. It’s splurging on content from anime to Hollywood movies to generate ad sales, which rose 60 percent in the June quarter. Popular titles including Cross Fire and Naruto Mobile helped Tencent more than double smartphone gaming revenue to 9.6 billion yuan in the period.

“When it comes to intellectual property, you have to serve the chicken many ways,” Tencent’s Ma, China’s third-richest man, said of his aspirations during a rare press conference earlier this year. “It should be viewed as cross-platform entertainment and be developed from multiple dimensions.”

(A previous version of this story was corrected to show market value in trillions, not billions)

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