Is Tencent’s ‘Tech for Good’ Setting a New Standard for the Tech Community?

Tencent’s “tech for good” annual meeting (source: Gabriel Li/ Pandaily)

What is “Tech for Good”? Ever since the beginning of 2019, Pony Ma, CEO of Tencent, has been repeatedly using the term. Back in March last year, he handed in seven proposals to the Two Sessions, entitled Suggestions on Strengthening the Construction of Science and Technology Ethics and Practicing the Concept of Tech for Good. In May, he shared a story in his WeChat moments about how Tencent’s top AI lab helped the police find a lost child and officially announced that “Tech for Good” has been elevated to the company’s new vision.

In fact, this is the third time the Shenzhen-based tech giant has changed its company vision since its founding in 2003. According to Tony Zhang, co-founder and former CTO of Tencent, Tencent has gone through three development stages in its course of history. The first two stages belong to the PC era. The period from 1998 to 2004 marks the general trend of PC web surfing. Tencent rode on this technology was to launch its major product, social app QQ. The “beep” sound of the app was an unforgettable memory of the entire generation born in the 1990s. At that time, Tencent’s mission was like any other tech startup, practical and down-to-earth, to be “a friend that users could rely on, a college with joy and vitality, a reliable and profitable market leader, a partner worthy of respect,” and “a first-class internet enterprise.”

The second stage lasted from 2005 to 2009. This is the era when internet companies benefited heavily from massive user growth. In 2005, the second year after the company went public, Tencent published its second version of its mission and vision: “Improving the quality of human life through Internet services” and “Become the most respected internet company.” This already sounds more human-oriented and less utilitarian than the first vision.

The third stage, monopoly, lasted from 2010 to 2016. In 2011, WeChat, one of Tencent’s most renowned products, was launched. In March 2012, WeChat users exceeded 100 million only 433 days after it went online, becoming the fastest growing online communication tool in the world. The WeChat moments feature came in April, and the public account platform in August.

The Biography of Tencent by renowned business writer and professor Wu Xiaobo says that the years from 2011 to 2014 were a time that belonged to WeChat. Its success shadowed all the other innovations in the internet realm. Suffice to say, WeChat’s success partly shaped the tech giant as it is now. Its massive user base shifted over from QQ. Users shifted from PC to smartphone. Users benefited from lower fees for smartphone data and free WeChat calls.

The success of a tech product is always reliant on utilizing human nature. When the scale of a tech firm increases to a universal level, it is almost certain its ethics will start to be tested and questioned. After all, this is an era when everyone uses WeChat and almost one in two teenagers in China knows how to play League of Legends, one of Tencent Games’ most famous products.

Professor Wu said in a recent speech, “When I was writing the Biography of Tencent, I did some research on internet companies in China. If we compare the market competition among the traditional manufacturing industries and consumer goods companies and the competition among Chinese Internet companies, I could say that the moral bottom line of Internet companies is no higher than those who sell drinks, food and health products.”

Why all of a sudden we are talking about “Tech for good”? Professor Wu said, “What is good? Under the environment of constant technological progress, human and business practices overlap. We need to form a common sense understanding that each company has to be self-disciplined.” In a sense, Tech for Good could be the end result of Tencent’s current stage of development.

“The power of science and technology is huge and its development is becoming more and more rapid. Making good use of science and technology will greatly affect the well-being of human society,” said Tencent in its internal letter signed by CEO Pony Ma. “We aim to promote technological innovation and cultural diffusion, the development and transformation of all other industries, and the sustainability of social development.”

It seems Tencent is indeed making moves in this field. During the “Tech for Good” annual meeting, the former CTO Tony Zhang shared an example of “Tech for Good.” Tencent Games set up a “healthy system” of two games, Happy Chinese Poker and an online chess game. The players of these two games are usually middle-aged or elderly, who are mature enough to control their own behavior. For instance, there’s a 60-year-old lying in a hospital bed, whose only entertainment is playing Tencent’s chess game. In this case, it would be a bad idea to completely take his phone away from him or ban his gaming account. It would ruin his mood, and make it harder for his recovery. Bearing this situation in mind, the project manager of the game team changed their approach.

Instead of constraining users, it provides users with a choice of tools for gaming time management. It allows users to establish a flexible agreement with the system, which regulates the online time for users. The system not only helps heavy addicts, but also helps those with the self-discipline to engage in more detailed and personalized time management.

As written in the Tech for Good Whitepaper 2020, another example from Tencent is the anti-plagiarism system employed in WeChat public accounts. In recent years, Chinese social media focused on WeChat public accounts. This created opportunities for widespread plagiarism of content. Some people invested little time in stealing and publishing dozens of articles, creating thousands of dollars of income per month. Now, people who have had their content stolen can complain, and the company’s anti-plagiarism system will adjudicate an outcome.

When we look around other companies in the tech community, it seems just the right moment to bring up this topic. Search engine Baidu has been revising its algorithms after an incident in which Wei Zexi died from a dubious medical treatment that was advertised on the platform. As for Alibaba, their current vision is “to make it easy to do business anywhere.” The Aspara Cloud platform is designed to facilitate the business for small- and medium-sized companies.

Looking overseas, Google has removed “don’t do evil” from its code of conduct and replaced it with “do the right thing.” Professor Wu says at the end of his speech, “There was a Google engineer who submitted a proposal to their committee. He said that he went to search for the word ‘suicide’ on Google. There appears various ways to kill yourself. It’s wrong. Due to his suggestion, Google later makes a change. Now you search for it on Google. The first that pops up is a 24-hour consultation hotline. The same goes for search engine Baidu now. It is just these tiny actions that gradually help us understand the meaning of ‘good’, and try to learn to make the compromise between tech and good.”