THERE was a time, not that long ago, when China’s big internet companies were dismissed by investors in Silicon Valley as marginal firms with a tendency to copy Western products. Not any more. Today they are monsters with increasingly hefty international ambitions.

Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce group, handles more transactions each year than do eBay and Amazon combined. Jack Ma, its chairman, pledges to serve 2bn consumers around the world within 20 years. Tencent, which specialises in online games and social media, is now the world’s tenth most valuable public firm, worth some $275bn. Pony Ma (no relation), its chairman, wants China to “preside over the global tech revolution of the future”. But as the two firms become global forces, the third member of China’s “BAT” trio of internet giants, Baidu, an online-search firm that came to dominate the mainland market after Google left the country to avoid censorship, is lagging behind.

All three firms differ from their Western peers in important ways. First, Western companies usually prefer to focus on a few core areas, whereas Chinese internet firms typically try to do everything from cloud computing to…


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