It’s that time of the year again. Tech executives and government officials from around the world are gathering in the historic water town of Wuzhen in east China for the state-run World Internet Conference (WIC). Meetings and keynotes aside, Ding Lei, the founder and CEO of the twenty-year-old tech conglomerate NetEase, has reportedly been hosting an exclusive dinner gathering the industry’s biggest names since 2014. This year was no exception and Richard Liu of the retail giant JD.com and Wang Xing of the O2O service platform Meituan-Dianping added their own banquet. Chinese media and tech watchers study these dinners closely as they act as indicators of the industry—who’s still relevant, and who’s whose ally. There are three things we can learn from the two dinners this year.
1. Changing winds
As usual, Ding served the non-GMO black pork harvested from the NetEase Weiyang Farm to his precious guests. Some tech bosses were new to the dinner, such as Gong Yu, founder and CEO of the video streaming platform iQiyi, Cheng Wei, co-founder and CEO of the ride-hailing company Didi-Chuxing, as well as Richard Liu. These new additions, insiders reckon, reflect rising trends in China’s booming tech industry. For instance, JD.com’s presence signals the importance of the new consumer business; iQiyi, the content and pan-entertainment industry; and Didi-Chuxing, the sharing economy.
Ding’s dinner has expanded from nine attendees in 2014 to twenty this year. The gathering first started with tech veterans of the PC era like Robin Li, founder and CEO of Baidu, Pony Ma, founder and CEO of Tencent, and Charles Zhang, founder and CEO of Sohu. The addition of Lei Jun, the man behind the smartphone manufacturing giant Xiaomi, along with Wang Xing last year, spoke of China’s sprawling mobile-first, mobile-only market.
2. The Tencent ally
According to local media, a few leaders excused themselves from Ding’s banquet and hurried to the next one hosted by Richard Liu and Wang Xing. Insiders see this second dinner as a celebration among Tencent’s friends: most of the companies present are affiliated with the social network and gaming giant. In a leaked photo of the dinner crowd, Pony Ma sat between the hosts Liu and Wang, a sign of Ma’s prominence for Tencent holds a stake in both JD.com and Meituan-Dianping. Most of the remaining guests also fall into the Tencent camp, including Didi-Chuxing, China’s Craigslist 58.com, the Q&A platform Zhihu, and the bike-rental startup Mobike.
Toutiao, a rising star in content distribution, was also curiously present although it has been regarded a competitor to Tencent’s own news aggregator app Tiantian Kuaibao. Toutiao is also one of the only Chinese tech giants that has not received any fundings from the BAT trio of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. Toutiao is, however, invested by another important presence at the dinner, the preeminent venture capitalist Neil Shen, founding managing partner of Sequoia Capital China.
3. Alibaba is still absent
This is the fourth year that Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, has attended WIC, though he has been to none of Ding’s private banquets. Neither did he attend Richard Liu’s this year, which was unsurprising given the heated competition between Alibaba and JD.com. As for Ma’s absence from Ding’s table, insiders point to a lesser known history between Alibaba and NetEase. When eBay first entered China back in 2004, it had signed exclusive advertising rights with major portals including Sina, Sohu, and Netease in an attempt to thwart its China rival Taobao—which had launched just a year earlier. There has never been an official statement on Jack Ma’s noticeable absence from the “big bro’s” dinners. What we know is that Mr. Ma has been trying his hand in the entertainment industry, including a recent debut film with martial arts master Jet Li and a duet with the Chinese diva Faye Wong.