New Joint Projects with Google, V&A Museum Legitimize Tencent on World Stage

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10:49 AM HKT, Sat January 20, 2018 2 mins read

Shenzhen-based internet giant Tencent has recently unveiled two partnerships in very different fields. The more recent — and more newsworthy — is a patent agreement with Google, which the US company has just announced. Reuters reports from Beijing:

Alphabet Inc’s Google has agreed to a patent licensing deal with Tencent Holdings Ltd as it looks for ways to expand in China where many of its products, such as app store, search engine and email service, are blocked by regulators. The U.S. technology company has signed similar agreements before with Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and Cisco Systems Inc, but the deal with Tencent is a first with a large Chinese tech firm.

Google did not disclose the deal’s financial details, but did say the agreement “covers a broad range of products.”

This announcement comes at a time when Chinese tech companies are facing increased scrutiny in the US. Hardware manufacturer Huawei, who’d been gearing up for a major push ahead of this month’s CES conference in Las Vegas, struggled to save face after AT&T abruptly canceled a carrier deal with the Chinese company. The parting of ways occurred after US lawmakers warned AT&T about possible security concerns related to working with Huawei, Reuters reported a few days after the deal fell through.

This Google/Tencent linkup, however, works in the other direction. Google recently announced plans to open an AI lab in Beijing, which has raised ethical concerns from some US-based commentators. Google CEO Sundar Pichai was a notable presence at December’s World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, where another Silicon Valley CEO — Apple’s Tim Cook — gave a keynote speech about “developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits,” a comment that many criticized as disingenuous coming from the CEO of a company that had removed several VPN apps from its Chinese app store just months before.

Seen in the context of these recent events, Google’s new deal with Tencent looks like a milestone in normalizing cooperation among internet giants from two countries with starkly different views on internet governance. It’s doubly interesting at a time when Huawei has just been definitively repudiated on US soil via AT&T’s eleventh-hour spike, an action that Chinese state media has decried as “trade protectionism.”

In less ethically ambiguous news: Tencent has gotten closer with London’s Victoria & Albert museum, which “acquired” WeChat, the Chinese company’s mega-popular social messaging app, in September. (You can learn how exactly an institution acquires an app via the V&A’s blog post on the pickup.)

Last month, the V&A opened a “cultural hub” called Design Society in the Shekou neighborhood of Shenzhen. “You have to respect your hosts,” V&A deputy director Tim Reeve told reporters near the time of the opening, sidestepping questions about internet censorship. Overall, Reeve seemed enthusiastic about the V&A’s new Shenzhen perch:

About a fifth of the objects on display were deliberately sourced in Shenzhen. These include a working model of WeChat — China’s own staggeringly popular social-media app, which was developed in 2010 by Shenzhen-based Tencent, one of the world’s largest tech companies. The demo version was specially made by Tencent, and is the first social-media application to be collected by any museum. (It went on display in South Kensington in September.)

“We think we’re so savvy with WhatsApp and Twitter, but when you see people’s lives here being run by WeChat,” marveled Reeve. “If you took WeChat away, all these businesses would collapse. It was important for us to acquire it.”

And so it sits, scrolling and flickering to itself, in one of the new vitrines. Another Shenzhen exhibit is Tencent’s Mon Mon toy. Naturally, it’s linked to WeChat — a child squeezing its cuddly tummy can send voice messages to a parent working far from home or all night at a factory.

The Tencent/V&A partnership looks set to deepen on the other tip of the continent as well. The V&A’s London museum has “a major exhibition revealing the complexity of videogames as one of the most important design fields of our time” opening in September, and a recent TechNode interview with V&A curators mentions that Tencent — which is as much a gaming company as anything else — will play a role in that. We’ll continue to watch Tencent’s soft power push across the globe, and report back as needed.

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