ByteDance, the owner of the viral video platform TikTok and Douyin, briefly attacked Chinese tech giant Tencent in a long, strident online post on Friday. The tussle between two Chinese tech heavyweights comes amid increased governmental scrutiny on anti-competitive behavior in the tech sector.

ByteDance criticized Tencent’s practice of blocking links to its products on messaging platforms WeChat and QQ in an online post, attaching a 59-page PDF file chronicling the blocking activities in the past three years. The company has since deleted the post and the file.

“More than 49 million people were stopped from sharing Douyin content to WeChat and QQ every day on average,” said ByteDance’s post. The company didn’t specify how they calculated the number.

ByteDance complained that Tencent has been blocking links to its short-formed video apps Douyin, Huoshan, and Xigua, for three years, “affecting more than 1 billion users.”

ByteDance’s high-profile complaint came as Chinese regulators crack down on tech companies’ anti-competitive behavior. ByteDance could benefit if regulators take action against Tencent’s link blocking practice. The company competes with Tencent on multiple fronts, including news aggregation and online games.

In March, Reuters reported that China’s top antitrust regulator was looking into Tencent’s WeChat for monopolistic practices, and how the popular messaging app had possibly squeezed smaller competitors.

ByteDance declined to comment on the situation when reached by TechNode. Tencent also declined to comment. Chinese media saved a copy of ByteDance’s post.

Widespread practice

Tencent is not the only company that tries to stop users from clicking into rival ecosystems. Tencent has banned links of ByteDance’s Douyin and productivity tool Feishu on WeChat. It also prohibits users from opening links to e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall online marketplaces.

Alibaba also bans (in Chinese) merchants from listing their WeChat contact information on the platform.

In August, ByteDance’s Douyin said it would ban links to third-party e-commerce sites, including Taobao and Tencent-backed JD.com, on its live-streaming channels in October. However, it also relies (in Chinese) on selling ads with links to those e-commerce sites for its short video feature.

ByteDance wrestles with Tencent

ByteDance wrote that the post was a response to a comment made by Tencent executive Sun Zhonghuai last Thursday at an industrial forum. Sun compared short-form videos to food for pigs.

Sun, a Tencent vice president and chief executive officer of the company’s online video department, said short-video apps were feeding users vulgar content. “Because the personalized recommendation [algorithms] are so powerful, if you like pigswill, all you see is pigswill, nothing else,” Sun said.

Sun is responsible for Tencent’s video-streaming platform Tencent Video and short-video app Weishi, according to Chinese media reports.

ByteDance defended short videos in the post, saying Sun’s remarks were “arrogant and unfair.” “As a new form of communication, short videos help countless ordinary people record and share their lives, allowing more people to see a larger world.”

ByteDance also hinted in the post that Tencent’s criticism of short videos was insincere, pointing out that Tencent had tried various times to make short video apps while calling them “pigswill.”

In the attached PDF file (in Chinese), ByteDance listed evidence that Tencent had blocked links to ByteDance’s short-video apps Douyin, Xigua, and Huoshan on WeChat, while allowed Tencent-backed Kuaishou and Weishi to share links on the social media platform.

The file mainly consists of annals of news coverage of Tencent and ByteDance’s conflicts from 2018 to 2021 and ByteDance’s summary of those events.

“We see this pamphlet as a standing reference to the [link] blocking and monopoly. It always reminds us that time may erase memories, but time cannot erase facts,” wrote ByteDance in the now-deleted post (our translation).

Suing companies for link blocking

ByteDance sued Tencent in February for blocking Douyin’s content on WeChat and QQ, citing China’s Anti-Monopoly Law.

Bytedance accused Tencent of violating Anti-Monopoly Law and “misusing a market-dominant position,” “excluding and restricting competition.”

The lawsuit is still awaiting a first hearing date at the Beijing Intellectual Property Court. Tencent has requested (in Chinese) the case be transferred to a court in Shenzhen, where the company is headquartered.

In 2019, a Chinese lawyer sued Tencent for blocking Alibaba’s Taobao links. He dropped the case in early 2020 for “a lack of evidence.” But since then, anti-monopoly enforcement has taken off.

Zhang Zhengxin, the lawyer who sued Tencent, told TechNode in December that his odds to win the case would “increase by a lot” if the case had gone to court then.

In December, China fined a batch of tech companies over antitrust violations for the first time. A month before that, China’s top antitrust regulator proposed new guidelines targeting anti-competitive behavior to include internet companies.

Wei Sheng

Wei Sheng is TechNode's feature editor. You can contact him at shengwei [at] technode [dot] com.