Tencent billionaire airs frustration during China's slowdown

Tencent reports that revenue growth all but evaporated in the three months ended March, hit by sweeping restrictions and lockdowns. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Tencent Holdings' billionaire co-founder Pony Ma shared a viral opinion piece on the economic costs of China's strict Covid-19-zero measures, in a rare show of frustration after his company struggled to grow during the first quarter.

Mr Ma, usually reluctant to step into the spotlight, reposted the column on his semi-public WeChat feed over the weekend.

From the long piece - which called out economists, academics and even average Internet users for dismissing the economic impact of Beijing's harsh Covid-19 measures - Mr Ma extracted a short segment that accused Chinese Internet users of taking online service providers like Tencent for granted, saying netizens would rather see those businesses go bankrupt than conduct lay-offs or let their staff work overtime.

"This is a really vivid description," the Tencent chief commented, according to a screengrab of a WeChat post that Bloomberg News verified with people in Mr Ma's WeChat circle.

He went on to quote the article: "But of course, if their meal orders come 10 minutes late, they would be cursing the delivery guys."

Mr Ma lifted that quote from a long opinion piece originally posted on May 20 by history author Zhang Mingyang, entitled Apart From Hu Xijin, No One Else Cares About The Economy.

That column referred to comments by Mr Hu, the influential former editor-in-chief of nationalist tabloid Global Times. Mr Hu had previously suggested that the economic costs of containing the virus should not exceed the public health benefits.

Ironically, the former newspaper editor had also commented on Mr Zhang's column after it was widely shared across the Chinese social media sphere - he called it sensationalist clickbait.

China's top leaders this month warned against questioning President Xi Jinping's Covid-19-zero strategy. The Politburo's supreme seven-member Standing Committee pledged to "fight against any speech that distorts, questions or rejects our country's Covid-control policy", state broadcaster China Central Television said.

Mr Ma expressed no further judgment on the overall article himself, but the fact that the boss of China's most valuable company shared the post made waves on the Chinese Internet.

Representatives for Tencent did not respond to requests for comment.

Tencent reported that revenue growth all but evaporated in the three months ended March, walloped by sweeping government restrictions as well as lockdowns across the country. Executives warned that the current quarter could be even worse as a quarantine covering much of Shanghai - China's media and finance hub - hammered commercial payments and ad spending.

The country's largest technology corporations have resigned themselves to a new era of low growth, more than a year into a Chinese government crackdown that has engulfed every Internet arena from e-commerce to gaming and online education.

Companies from Tencent to Alibaba Group Holding have reduced headcount and streamlined laggard businesses, among other measures, to improve margins and control costs.

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