Note: This article was first published on TechNode China (in Chinese).
ByteDance, one of China’s newest tech giants, caused an uproar in the venture capital circle when it dissolved its strategic investment department on Jan. 18, reassigning at least 100 employees in the process.
The company said the move aimed to move staff into different units to strengthen internal collaboration. However, outsiders have speculated that the move, along with changes to the company’s investment strategies, represents an urgent shift from ByteDance as it looks to abide by China’s anti-monopoly regulations.
ByteDance’s decision and other Chinese tech giants’ recent moves to divest investments signal a change in China’s corporate venture capital funds (CVCs). They are downsizing after being major players in the capital circle for more than a decade and having nurtured promising startups to success.
The golden decade of Chinese corporate venture capital
From 2010 to 2019, the top 10 companies in China’s equity investment market by CVC investment amount were Tencent, Alibaba, Fosun Group, JD.com, Baidu, SoftBank Group, Qihoo 360, Ant Financial, Suning Group, and Sunac China, half of which are CVCs in tech companies. In 2019, 10 industrial groups, including Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, and Ant Financial, invested RMB 90.467 billion ($14.23 billion) in total. CVCs accounted for nearly 80% of their total investment during the same period.
CVC investment in China can be traced back to 1998, a relatively late start compared with other countries. During that first decade, Chinese CVCs remained in a tepid state. However, in 2010, Chinese CVC investment began to develop, as traditional industry giants and tech companies started to establish their strategic investment departments.
Since 2015, under a government policy of encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation, Chinese CVC investment began to accelerate. During this period, the number of corporate venture capital institutions peaked at 170. In addition, the scale of startups and the amount of investment also expanded significantly. Since 2016, the total investment of Chinese CVCs has been on par with independent venture capital.
CVCs can generally be divided into two categories, the traditional enterprise CVC, and the tech one.
In traditional industries, manufacturing is the backbone of CVC entities, with these companies typically involved in media, games, real estate, medical care, logistics, automobiles, and consumer electronics.
Companies behind tech CVCs usually fall into two distinct groups: older tech giants like Tencent, Baidu, and JD.com, and newcomers focused on mobile devices like Bilibili, ByteDance, and Xiaomi.
Chinese tech CVCs have continuously driven the development of the real economy while serving the strategic development of their parent companies, becoming an essential part of China’s capital market.
The trillion-dollar investment playground for giant CVCs
Today, tech companies account for 20% of CVC companies in China, contributing a sizable part. Data shows that many CVCs within tech companies have been more active in foreign investment than those in traditional companies.
Take ByteDance as an example:
ByteDance mainly invested in content industries related to its own business in its early days. As traffic on the short-video platform Douyin (TikTok’s China version) began to peak, ByteDance sought growth in other areas by investing in education, consumption, e-commerce, medical care, finance, games, and even more niche areas like business-to-business services and hard tech.
Data shows that ByteDance has invested in 193 projects since its establishment and has increased the number of foreign investments every year since 2019. ByteDance invested in 64 companies in 2021, with a cumulative investment amount of nearly RMB 35 billion, which accounts for almost 10% of ByteDance’s total revenue in 2021, according to enterprise database Qi Chacha.
Tencent has one of the most successful CVCs in China. The company’s investment department was established earlier than most CVCs in China. Tencent is also a stakeholder in many well-known Chinese tech companies.
Tencent (including its sub-companies) had made more than 1,180 investments as of December 2021, IT Juzi data showed. Tencent invested in 250 companies in 2021 alone, more than the sum of Baidu, Alibaba, 360, JD.com, Xiaomi, ByteDance, and Bilibili. According to data shown in its Q3 report, Tencent’s 2021 investment projects are valued at RMB 1.75 trillion, which is almost equivalent to the total GDP of China’s northern Shanxi province (home to around 35 million people) in 2020.
Tencent prefers investing in pan-entertainment media industries, especially the gaming industry, one of its main business lines. The company is also heavily involved in corporate services, finance, education, healthcare, and new food and beverage chain brands.
Tech CVCs may invest less in tech
As ByteDance disbanded its CVC (which it called strategic investment department), copies of apparently official regulatory documents called “Rules of Practice for IPO and Investment of Tech Companies” (our translation) began to spread on the Chinese internet. The files showed that tech companies who want to conduct IPOs, or seek investment or fundraising will need to seek approval from China’s internet watchdog Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) if they meet two standards: they either have more than 100 million users or more than RMB 10 billion in revenue in the past year, or, deal with sectors heavily regulated, such as media and financial services.
Many commentators believe the document caused ByteDance to dissolve its CVC department, despite CAC denying issuing such a file. However, as Chinese regulators keep up the anti-monopoly crackdowns on top tech companies, many firms will look to cut down their strategic investments to err on the side of caution.
Even before ByteDance dissolved its strategic investment department, other tech majors had already begun to cut ties with invested companies.
Alibaba Group first sold its 5.62% stake in media firm Caixin in 2019 and withdrew its investment from Mango Excellent Media ahead of schedule in September 2021 with a loss of RMB 2.3 billion. Daniel Zhang, the CEO of Alibaba, stepped down as board of directors at both Didi and Weibo in late 2021 and early 2022.
Meanwhile, Tencent began reducing its shares in JD.com by paying a mid-term dividend; it later announced that it would reduce its 2.7% stake in Sea, the largest tech company in Southeast Asia, and give up its super-voting rights, with a total divestment of $3.1 billion.
Tech giants’ CVCs have played a positive role in China’s platform economy, but at the same time, they have stifled small and medium-sized startups’ development, says Hu Jiye, a finance professor at China University of Political Science and Law. Top tech companies have sometimes forced startups to follow their strategy by holding shares and suppressing competition, Hu added, stating that startups can only survive by abiding by the rules set by these tech giants. The Chinese government considers this behavior disorderly expansion and the abuse of the companies’ dominant market position.
Hu believes that the voluntary contraction of tech CVCs could benefit small and medium-sized enterprises and that Chinese CVCs will enter an era of regulated development, leaving behind an unregulated era.