Those lives are riper for tech disruption than lives in the West. In China, small stores dominate retail. Hospitals are crowded and doctors overworked. Most people do not have credit cards. These are easier business opportunities for Alibaba and Tencent than they would be for Amazon or Facebook.
In a report this week, Morgan Stanley predicted that by 2027, the total market in China in which Alibaba could be making money will be worth $19 trillion — more than Amazon’s potential market worldwide.
At the moment, both Chinese giants are hustling to find more ways for people to transact using their wallet and not the other’s. Alibaba’s shopping sites and physical stores do not allow users to pay for stuff with WeChat. Tencent-backed companies, such as the retailer JD.com or the service platform Meituan-Dianping, either downplay Alipay as a payment option in their apps or do not accept it at all.
Whether any of this will give either camp an enduring lead in payments is unclear. Eric Wen, the founder of Blue Lotus Research Institute, expects them to end up at roughly 50-50.
The payments contest will at least propel both companies to keep expanding their kingdoms, including overseas. Alibaba is pouring billions of dollars into online shopping ventures in India and Southeast Asia. Tencent is backing start-ups around the world that have even a distant chance of enriching its ecosystem.
George Favvas did not know too much about Tencent before it invested in his company in San Francisco, Circle Medical, whose app lets users summon doctors on demand. He also had no specific plans to take his business to China in the near future, if ever.
“My first question was, ‘Why are you interested in us?’” Mr. Favvas said.
He gets it now, he says. “They’re just such a big player, and health care is so broken,” Mr. Favvas said. Tencent, he added, is interested in health care for the same reasons companies like Amazon and Apple are.
“If anything, they’re a couple of years ahead.”