Tencent’s Pony Ma, ByteDance’s Zhang Yiming in online spat over accusations of blocking and plagiarism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2018, 2:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2018, 7:01pm

The CEOs of two of China’s biggest tech companies engaged in an online bickering match on Tuesday after one accused the other of plagiarism.

Pony Ma Huateng, head of internet giant Tencent Holdings, fired back with an uncharacteristic public retort when Zhang Yiming, whose Douyin video platform is blocked by Tencent’s WeChat, accused Tencent’s Weishi video platform of “plagiarising” Douyin.

“The progress of Douyin was unstoppable despite Tencent’s blocking and Weishi’s plagiarism,” Zhang originally wrote on his WeChat Moments account, where he also cited a report showing that the viral short video platform Douyin, known as Tik Tok outside China, was the most downloaded iOS app worldwide in the first quarter of the year, with more than 45 million installs from Apple’s App Store, according to US research firm Sensor Tower Store Intelligence. 

However, it was only when Zhang, CEO of Beijing ByteDance Technology, followed up with the comment, “The growth of Douyin cannot be stopped despite WeChat blocking Douyin on its platform and [Tencent’s] Weishi copying and plagiarising Douyin,” that the usually low profile Tencent CEO and founder weighed in with a short, sharp reply: “[Your comments] can be understood as slander.”  

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In a follow up retort on his WeChat Moments Zhang wrote: “The former [blocking] is not suitable for discussion and the latter [plagiarism] is being proven. I do not intend to start a verbal dispute. 

“I just cannot help to complain and was criticised by our [public relations] colleagues [for doing so]. I will send you the materials separately.”  

“We have too much against [ByteDance] that is being proven,” Ma responded, without elaborating. 

Tencent’s ubiquitous messaging app WeChat, which has 1 billion users, controls a huge swathe of the social media activity in the country. Start-ups that are denied access to the app lose an important avenue to reach users.

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Douyin’s popularity has skyrocketed over the past year, mainly among under 24 year olds who like its powerful and easy-to-use editing tools that can add catchy music and special effects to videos. Tik Tok was also the most downloaded iPhone app in the world in the first quarter, with an estimated 45.8 million downloads, followed by YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook’s Messenger app and Instagram.

The Shenzhen-based Tencent confirmed the WeChat Moments exchanges between Ma and Zhang did occur when it provided a screenshot of the postings. “Any rational discussion, communication, criticism and instruction is welcome but irresponsible slander is unacceptable,” said a Tencent spokesman when contacted to verify the screenshot’s authenticity. 

We welcome any accusation and resolutely crack down on anything involved in infringement
Tencent statement

“Weishi encourages and protects original content. We welcome any accusation and resolutely crack down on anything involved in infringement,” Tencent said. “The protection of original content is a common challenge for all platforms and we wish to have more rational communication and constructive opinion.” 

An Alibaba Group executive then weighed in, with Yu Yongfu, chairman of Alibaba Pictures, posting a verified message on ByteDance’s Wei Toutiao social media platform saying: “I support [Zhang] Yiming. Nothing more to add.” 

ByteDance and Alibaba did not immediately comment when contacted.

In April, Tencent blocked its WeChat and QQ messaging app users from adding links to Douyin and a handful of other short video platforms, including its own Weishi, after the platforms were singled out by government regulators for distributing “inappropriate” content. 

The online spat between the Bytedance and Tencent CEOs comes just days after the former defended the latter over criticism voiced in an online essay published by a WeChat media group called Luan Fa Shu.  The essay said Tencent had lost its creative mojo by driving growth through investments rather than original innovation, adding that “it seems Tencent cannot deal with the challenge from Douyin and has not made great products in the short video area.” 

Zhang jumped to the defence of Ma, describing Tencent as “an extremely excellent company” and saying Ma was the “CEO that I admire the most”. In refuting the claims made by Luan Fa Shu, Zhang wrote: “Tencent is improving in every aspect and I hope the company will drive China’s internet industry to improve.”  

Douyin works by giving its young users direct access to online shopping while they watch fun, entertaining videos. Tik Tok is operated by Bytemod, an overseas arm of ByteDance, which also owns, the social video app that ranked No 16 in the first quarter for worldwide downloads in the App Store and Google Play. 

Douyin’s owner ByteDance is not backed by Baidu, Alibaba or Tencent – collectively known as BAT – despite the three having grown so large, with combined revenues of 550 billion yuan (US$87.3 billion), that they dominate nearly every aspect of the Chinese internet, from web search and social media to e-commerce and entertainment. Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

Among China’s 124 unicorns – private companies with a valuation of US$1 billion or above – 50.8 per cent are controlled or backed by BAT, according to a February report by information service provider ITJUZI.

Additional reporting by Meng Jing and Zen Soo