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Business trends

The China lobby: TikTok parent boosts K-street spending tenfold

Alibaba and Tencent accelerated expenditures while Huawei cut 80%

Faced with the threat of being banned in the U.S., ByteDance, the parent of video app TikTok, significantly increased lobby spending.    © Reuters

PALO ALTO, U.S./GUANGZHOU -- Chinese tech companies spent more on U.S. lobby firms last year amid political and regulatory uncertainty, available data shows.

ByteDance, the Beijing-based parent of wildly popular video app TikTok, spent $2.61 million in 2020, a tenfold increase from the year before. Eager to push back against former President Donald Trump's intent to ban the app, the company hired 47 lobbyists to influence Congress, some 30 people more than 2019.

Alibaba Group Holding, the Hangzhou, China-based e-commerce giant, spent $3.16 million, a roughly 20% increase.

Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings, the operator of the world's largest chat app WeChat, officially began lobbying activity last summer and spent $1.52 million in its first year.

Meanwhile, Huawei Technologies, also based in Shenzhen, cut its lobby spending by about 80% year-on-year, appearing to give up on trying to convince U.S. lawmakers to help after it was branded a national security threat by the U.S. government.

The data is based on reports to Congress or information compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., is considered to be the origin of the word "lobbying." (Photo by J. Hendron)

Lobbying has long played a role in U.S. politics as special interests seek to sway favor with members of the legislature. While the exact origin of the term is up for debate, some believe it originated at the Willard Hotel in Washington. It was supposedly used by former President Ulysses Grant to describe political advocates who would gather in the lobby to gain access to the 18th American president.

K-street in Washington, which runs east-west through Georgetown and the downtown and traditionally housed many of the lobby firms, is often referred to as "DC's Corridor of Influence."

Others say its roots are in Britain, and refers to the hallways, or "lobbies," of parliament where representatives and the public would gather after debates, according to the BBC.

The governments of Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan have a long history of lobbying. But Trump targeting of Chinese private companies -- including a presidential order banning American companies from dealing with ByteDance and Tencent -- have made these tech giants new clients for K-street firms.

Heavy lobby spending was seen by their American peers. Facebook increased spending by 18% to $19.68 million, putting it atop the corporate lobby-spending ranking for the first time.

Amazon.com, the 2019 champion of lobby spending, increased K-street expenditures 12% to 18.72 million and ranked second.

The Big Four, including Google parent Alphabet and Apple, spent a combined $53.9 million, a slight increase from the year before.

The chief executives were summoned by Congress in the summer to explain their activities, as lawmakers increased scrutiny toward the monopolistic nature of the tech companies.

Google and Facebook were sued for antitrust during the year.

Relations with the new administration of President Joe Biden look to have gotten off to a better start, with Amazon offering to assist in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. But Democratic lawmakers, especially those in the progressive wing, are not known to be big fans of Silicon Valley giants and tech companies will likely hesitate to cut lobby spending.

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