Tencent’s grip on WeChat has given it a powerful launchpad into Chinese social media but it now faces a new challenges from its younger rival Bytedance. Starting out with massively popular platforms like Toutiao and Douyin at home, the seven year-old firm’s video platforms TikTok have topped the rankings in app downloads in other countries, including the United States. Indeed, such is its success that netizens have joked that Bytedance is more effective than the government’s various ‘soft power’ programmes in promoting Chinese culture abroad.
The threat from Bytedance was one of the factors behind Tencent’s investment in Reddit, a social network popular in the American market, says news website Huxiu.com. Reddit has just confirmed a $300 million fundraising round led by Tencent that valued the 14 year-old firm at $3 billion. With more than 330 million active monthly users, the online forum is the fifth most popular website in the US (after Google, YouTube, Facebook and Amazon).
Techcrunch, which broke the news of the deal, describes Reddit as “one of America’s most lawless free-speech forums”, saying that Tencent’s investment in Reddit looked like “an odd pairing”.
“One exists to give near boundless voice to all and sundry, the other’s purpose is to connect people, companies and money under the watchful eye of one of the world’s most restrictive governments,” agreed Tim Culpan, a Bloomberg columnist.
Reddit say the tie-up is designed to tap into Tencent’s expertise in video games, a category that’s already popular with the platform’s customers. But some of its users have already expressed concerns that Tencent could exert undue influence, especially in restricting the posting of content that might irk its home government. Other conspiracy theorists voiced fears that Tencent and the Chinese government could exploit Reddit to interfere with the American presidential election in 2020.
One of the most popular memes posted in response to the deal featured Winnie the Pooh. The cartoon figure is largely banned on the Chinese internet because it has been used to mock President Xi Jinping. This started after a meeting with former US leader Barack Obama in 2013 when a photograph was released of the pair walking together. The scene had similarities to a portly Winnie ambling alongside a lanky Tigger, triggering much hilarity online. Obama may have seen the funny side, but China’s censors did not. The irony is the original meme is believed to have started on Reddit and netizens have been quick to caution that the platform is still banned in China. As is SnapChat, the US-based photo-messaging app with 186 million users that Tencent bought a 12% stake in last year.
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