Tencent's Pony Ma Huateng giving a speech at the University of Hong Kong last year. Photo: YouTube
Tencent's Pony Ma Huateng giving a speech at the University of Hong Kong last year. Photo: YouTube

The war between two of the top Chinese social media companies intensified on Monday with Tencent and Toutiao both pointing fingers at each other and alleging dirty tricks by public relations people.

On Monday, Tencent said in a statement on its official weibo page that the company had come under a continued and intense attack in what it claimed was manipulated PR. It later posted another statement on weibo claiming the public security bureau had arrested people involved in the case and others had fled into exile. It urged people it said had crossed the line to turn themselves in.

Right after Tencent’s weibo statement, Toutiao, which runs a popular news aggregator app and short video app, said there had been more than 12,000 criticism of its two platforms between April 3 and June 14 and they had discovered who was behind the attacks and had already reported the case to the public security bureau.

Jinri Toutiao, which literally means Today’s Headlines, Toutiao’s flagship news portal, claimed some of the dirty PR tricks attacking the company were allegedly organized by people who had worked in Tencent video. It said it had put up a 5 million yuan (US$762,782) reward for anyone who could provide details.

The accusation followed a court case in Beijing earlier this month when Tencent sued Toutiao for compensation of one yuan for allegedly repeatedly defaming Tencent with negative news. Tencent alleged Toutiao had intentionally tweaked a state media report headline and sourced unfavorable items that seriously damaged its reputation.

In response, Toutiao sought compensation of 90 million yuan for allegedly spreading false information on its WeChat platform.

The counter-suits highlighted the intense rivalry between Tencent and the emerging Toutiao to dominate social media. Tencent is China’s biggest online operator and its instant messaging platform has more than one billion users.

By comparison Toutiao, backed by a venture fund, is an emerging start-up valued at US$30 billion. Apart from Jinri Toutiao, it also owns Tik Tok, or Douyin, a Chinese music video platform.

The attacks on each other were believed to have started after Tencent allegedly suspended a link with Tik Tok on its WeChat platform in early April.

Last month, Toutiao chairman Zhang Yiming claimed in his WeChat friend circle that Tencent’s WeChat platform had blocked Tik Tok’s videos and that Tencent’s videos looked similar to those of Tik Tok. Zhang added that these challenges would not stop Tik Tok from growing.

According to Chinese media, some people complained they could not access Tik Tok’s video links on WeChat in March and April. Tencent had said earlier that video hyperlinks were not available on WeChat during that period due to technical reasons and it was not only Tik Tok that was affected.

Tencent chairman Pony Ma Huateng also said it was defamation to say Tencent was imitating other video platforms.

Last week, Pony Ma made another post in his friends circle, saying many people did not recognize how far-reaching the dirty PR tricks were. He said he would stick to the Buddha principle to withstand the criticism in the last two months, but added “it is time to dig into the root of the issue.”

The first round is over, but there are more to come.