Influence Empire by Lulu Chen review – the story of China’s Tencent

A fascinating study of the tech giant and its symbiotic relationship with the Chinese government

Five years ago, the Chinese tech company Tencent overtook Facebook to become the fifth largest company in the world. Though it’s still an unfamiliar name to many in the west, Tencent is a major stakeholder in tech companies and products including Spotify, Tesla, Snapchat, Monzo and Reddit, as well as the makers of video games such as Fortnite, League of Legends, Clash of Clans, and Call of Duty. The company’s interests reach, tendril-like, into the worlds of finance, cloud computing, media, messaging, video streaming and film production. And, in China, the business runs the Swiss Army knife super app WeChat – part social media platform, part digital wallet – currently used by 1.3 billion people.

That Tencent has achieved international capitalist supremacy from a communist base is astonishing, although readers of Lulu Chen’s book may be unsurprised to learn that, according to her, it has done so by maintaining close ties to the Chinese government, which values the access to the torrents of information Tencent collects daily. With few data protection laws in place, apps owned by Tencent have reportedly been used by the government to monitor, even imprison users. With Influence Empire, Chen, a reporter for Bloomberg, seeks to tell the story of arguably China’s greatest entrepreneurial success, expose the threads that link Xi Jinping’s regime to your Snapchat account, and familiarise us with the company’s reclusive, 50-year-old founder Ma Huateng, who goes by the incongruous English moniker “Pony”.

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