China has a new richest man—and it’s not Jack Ma nor Wang Jianlin

China’s blank-faced billionaire.
China’s blank-faced billionaire.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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China watchers tracking the country’s richest men have long been observing a tit-for-tat race to the top between Alibaba founder Jack Ma and real estate mogul Wang Jianlin. Now the frontrunner is a different horse altogether.

Ma Huateng, the co-founder and chairman of Tencent who also goes by Pony Ma, has surpassed both of those businessmen—Wang in late July, and Jack Ma today (Aug. 7)—to become China’s richest individual, according to Forbes’ World’s Billionaires list. Following a 3% jump in the company’s stock on the Hong Kong stock exchange today, Ma’s net worth reached $36.2 billion, ahead of Jack Ma’s $35.6 billion and Wang’s $30.1 billion. He’s now the 18th-richest man in the world, just a hair behind Alice and S. Robson Walton, the heirs to the Walmart fortune.

Ma has an 8.71% stake in Tencent, making him its largest individual shareholder, according to FactSet data. The stock has been on a tear this year—and well before that—thanks largely to the ubiquity of WeChat (paywall), China’s dominant messaging app which also functions as a news reader, mobile wallet, and taxi hailer, among many other services. As of May 2017, it has 938 million monthly users (pdf).

Tencent has also enjoyed huge success of late with Honor of Kings, which was the top-grossing mobile game in the world in the first half of this year with 55 million daily players—it’s so popular that Tencent had to introduce child locks on the game in response to growing criticism of the company in Chinese state media. Nearly all of those players are Chinese, but that could change now that Tencent has announced plans to export an international version of the game.

There’s more for investors to get excited about. WeChat continues to evolve, launching an app store that could compete against those from Apple and others, a search engine to compete against Baidu, and perhaps soon enough, a social-credit scoring system. If the latter feature is introduced inside WeChat this week, it could deal a severe blow to Alibaba, which introduced a social-credit feature in its Alipay payments app in 2015.

Alibaba and Tencent, much like their founders, have themselves been engaged in a race to become Asia’s most valuable company, a title that Tencent temporarily held last autumn. Tencent and Alibaba are now valued at $389 billion and $392 billion, respectively, according to Bloomberg data.

Despite their competition and shared surname—”Ma” means “horse” in Chinese—the two founders’ public personas couldn’t be more different. Pony Ma is notoriously press-shy, and seems stoic and measured in his rare public appearances. Jack Ma, on the other hand, relishes attention and regularly doles out bits of inspiration in a demeanor typical of Silicon Valley tech founders. Pony’s wealth might be greater than Jack’s, but don’t expect him to flaunt it.