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As Alibaba and Tencent swell, so does their political risk

The two Mas have contrasting strategies for keeping Beijing happy

Jack Ma taps his inner Michael Jackson at Alibaba's annual party in Hangzhou on Sept. 8.   © Getty Images

HONG KONG -- Virtually every day, the People's Daily and its English-language counterpart, the China Daily, feature either President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang -- or both -- on their front pages. That is hardly surprising since the newspapers reflect the views and wishes of the Chinese Communist Party. More surprising, though, is the fact that one of China's most highly valued startups, Toutiao, a customized news website backed by Sequoia Capital China, also features the two leaders prominently most days.

No matter how powerful or influential a new-economy company in China may be, any of them -- or any billionaire businessman -- runs the risk of incurring Beijing's wrath or envy. Most companies worry about losing out to the competition or being disrupted by a sudden change in technology. But in China, the biggest risk is political. And today, Chinese tech titans Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings are the focus of an intense debate about the extent to which they are vulnerable to that risk.

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