Zhang Feng, a senior executive at Tencent, is being held by Chinese authorities for involvement in a corruption case. The Tencent employee reportedly shared without authorization of personal data collected by the WeChat application to former vice-minister of public security of China Sun Lijun. This politician is also under investigation part of a wider campaign to fight corruption within the judiciary. Sun Lijun is charged with “violation of discipline and the law”.
Revealed in early February 2021 by the Wall Street Journal, the investigation is said to have started in early 2020. Chinese authorities have not confirmed that an investigation has targeted Zhang Feng. According to a spokesperson for Tencent, the case “concerns accusations of personal corruption and has nothing to do with WeChat or Weixin [équivalent chinois de WeChat] ».
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After spending the majority of his career in one of the departments of the Communist Party Central Committee, Zhang Feng has worked for Tencent since 2018. However, the position occupied by Zhang Feng within Tencent remains unclear. According to a register from Zhangjiakou Municipality, a city near Beijing, he served as vice president during a meeting with the city’s mayor in 2018. A source familiar with the matter also said that Zhang Feng worked as the executive head of government affairs, a position for which he managed relations between Tencent and Chinese ministries. Statements denied by the company which claims that Zhang Feng has never been a senior manager or placed in a management position.
Since December 2019 the CEO of Tencent has made all his appearances in video
Zhang Feng and Sun Lijun did not comment on the investigation. Zhang Feng could not be contacted to respond to these accusations and his current whereabouts are not known. On the politician’s side, Sun Lijun did not respond to the Chinese government’s anti-corruption inspectors – the Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission – or to the State Council’s Information Office. Anti-corruption inspectors have also been kept away from alleged offenses by Sun Lijun in the investigation for “violation of discipline and the law” which began in April.
While Zhang Feng is caught in legal turmoil, Tencent Founder and CEO Ma Huateng aka Pony Ma has not made an appearance or public event since the World Artificial Intelligence Conference held in Shanghai in August 2019. Since December of the same year, all his interventions have been virtual. Even for end-of-year meetings, a particularly unusual practice for Ma Huateng. More surprisingly, he missed 40 years of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone where Tencent is based. The official reason for these absences would be a convalescence following a back injury. Yet subject to no charges, Ma Huateng would spend most of his time in Hong Kong according to sources familiar with the case. Despite a resemblance in their names, Pony Ma is not related to Jack Ma. Nonetheless, their situations have similarities. The founder of Alibaba also had a more than discreet period, without public appearances, which had greatly agitated the web. It is therefore not surprising that Ma Huateng’s absence is causing concern among his employees.
Data: a quest for the Communist Party
This investigation, which involves both a senior executive from one of the BATXs and a government official, sheds light on the ambiguous relationship between the tech giants and the Chinese government. In fact, digital players collect a lot of data, and their use and sharing raises questions. If the authorities show fears in the face of a monopoly on data, the fact that the government seeks to have access to it testifies to issues linked above all to power and influence. Beijing or the BATX, which exercises power over the other, that may be the question. With a growing desire to toughen its competition policies in order to regain control over the data of its citizens, the message is clear: the Communist Party does not want to be overshadowed, it is he who is leading the way.
WeChat is the main social network in China. By offering a payment system alongside its messaging service, the company collects a great deal of data on the daily lives of its 1.2 billion users. It goes without saying that WeChat embodies a powerful monitoring tool for the government, which also regularly requests the removal of dissenting opinions present on the network.
Despite these various events, Tencent is doing well. In December 2020, the company has overtaken Alibaba in terms of market capitalization.