China Roundup: Ant Financial’s new boss and Tencent’s army of new apps

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, we are looking at what Ant Financial’s executive shakeup could give to Alibaba’s financial affiliate and why Tencent has gone on an app-launching spree.

Return of the old boss

This week, Ant Financial, the online financial services company, 33% of which is owned by Alibaba and controlled by Jack Ma, announced Hu Xiaoming as its new chief executive. Management reshuffles aren’t rare at Alibaba, which prides itself on rotating executives every few months to stay fresh and agile in a competitive environment. The latest reshuffle is providing some clues to where Ant, the world’s most valuable private fintech company, is headed in the coming years.

Hu will take the lead in growing Ant’s domestic payments and financial services units while his predecessor and current chairman Eric Jing will manage overseas expansion and development of new technologies. Having worked at several major Chinese banks, Hu joined Alibaba in 2005 to expand the firm’s budding financial services and has since been credited with helping Ant identify paths to monetization.

Around 2009, Hu made a bold move to initiate a microloan service targeted at small and medium sellers on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform. It was a boon to millions of merchants who otherwise would not be able to borrow from traditional financial institutions because they lacked banking history. Instead, Alibaba assessed their creditworthiness based on digital records, such as online sales and customer ratings. Today, small loans are just one of the many offerings from Ant’s ever-expanding financial empire, which also operates the billion-user Alipay payments app, the world’s largest money market fund and credit-rating system Sesame Credit.

In 2014, the storied executive was assigned to lead Alibaba’s cloud business and later grew it into one of the firm’s fastest-growing segments and a serious contender to Amazon Web Services. Hu was no stranger to Alibaba Cloud, which had already been working to introduce cloud computing to the fintech unit’s existing IT environments (in Chinese). In fact, most of Alibaba Cloud’s early applications happened internally at Alibaba as the company felt the urgency to develop an IT system that was more scalable and customizable than most large international vendors could provide.

Under Hu’s helm, the cloud arm struck a major deal with the government of Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown in Eastern China, to ease traffic congestion using data analytics and cloud computing solutions. Government contracts are an important lever for businesses developing costly state-of-the-art technologies, for as soon as an innovation is proven in practice, private demand will pick up over time.

Hu Xiaoming, new CEO of Alibaba’s financial affiliate Ant Financial (Ant Financial via Weibo)

Hu’s experience with commercializing new technologies and cooperating with state agencies makes him the ideal leader of Ant at a critical time. Last year, Ant’s highly anticipated IPO plans were pushed back reportedly because Beijing worried the private firm had amassed too much influence. To allay concerns among regulators and big banks, Ant has in recent times pivoted to focus more on selling technology solutions rather than financial services, per se.

Social networking anxiety

Tencent has launched at least seven new social networking apps since the beginning of 2019. Each comes with a slightly different focus, whether it’s targeting college students or specializing in video-based chatting. Industry observers said Tencent made these moves to defend challengers, particularly ByteDance, of which TikTok (or Douyin in China) has taken the world by storm. Although short videos don’t directly compete with Tencent’s messenger WeChat, they certainly are consuming more of people’s screen time. And there are signs that ByteDance is encroaching on Tencent’s core markets after the upstart pushed into video games and messaging.

Tencent might also worry about WeChat’s slowing growth. The slowdown is in part attributed to the app’s already enormous base — more than 1 billion monthly users — so growth has inevitably cooled. WeChat gave Tencent a timely boost at the start of the mobile internet revolution when QQ, Tencent’s messenger that dominated China’s PC era, had seen its day. Now Tencent appears to be in need of a new growth engine, be it a groundbreaking feature of WeChat to rejuvenate the app or a brand new social network to replicate the success of WeChat and QQ.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Tencent, like all other large internet companies in China, is always testing new products to meet shifting landscapes in the tech industry. Tencent is famous for pitting different departments against each other in what it calls an internal “horse race,” which spawned WeChat almost 10 years ago. In most cases, these projects failed to catch on, but the cost of making new apps is negligible for a behemoth like Tencent because much of the development process has been standardized. All it needs is a skunkworks team of a dozen employees, ideally headed by a visionary such as WeChat’s Allen Zhang.

Also worth your attention

Nvidia, the chipmaker known for its GPUs, is already working with some 370 automakers, tier-1 suppliers, developers and researchers in the field of autonomous driving. This week to its family of partners it added China’s largest ride-hailing company, Didi Chuxing . Together the pair will work on developing GPUs for Didi’s Level 4 autonomous cars (which can operate under basic situations without human intervention), the companies said in a statement. Didi, which spun off its autonomous driving unit into a separate company in August, said last month (in Chinese) at an industry conference that it had plans to soon begin testing autonomous vehicles on Shanghai streets.