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China tech

China tech companies battle behind scenes of top New Year show

Douyin chalks up win for upstarts with 'red envelope' sponsorship

Presenters on the Spring Festival Gala program told the audience to open the Douyin app for a "red envelope" giveaway.

TOKYO -- Relaxing in front of the television on Lunar New Year's Eve to watch CCTV's Spring Festival Gala is a tradition for more than 1 billion people in China, and the variety show airing on the state-run broadcaster provides an opportunity to gauge the state of play in the country's fast-moving internet industry.

During this year's program on Feb. 11, a presenter told the audience to open the Douyin app -- the Chinese version of ByteDance's popular TikTok short-video platform -- for a virtual "red envelope" giveaway. Viewers could use Douyin's new mobile payment service for a chance at part of the 1.2 billion yuan ($186 million) up for grabs in this spin on the Lunar New Year tradition of cash gifts.

The giveaway is among the most coveted spots for sponsor companies on the world's most-watched show, an advertising bonanza that has been called China's equivalent of the Super Bowl.

In the past, top sponsors included the company displayed on the countdown clock and the maker of the brand of baijiu hard liquor that people drink during the event. But Tencent Holdings started a trend in 2015 when it stole the show with a virtual red envelope giveaway through its WeChat Pay app.

Jack Ma, founder of rival Alibaba Group Holding, was reportedly caught completely off guard by the promotion, calling it a surprise attack.

This came just as mobile payments took off in China, and Tencent's platform had a roughly 20% share of the market at the time. After the program, trading digital red envelopes via WeChat Pay became a trend that helped establish the current Alipay-WeChat Pay duopoly.

From 2016 on, internet companies have vied to be chosen as the gala's exclusive red envelope partner. The list of sponsors illustrates how upstarts such as Douyin and e-commerce company Pinduoduo have supplanted established heavyweights like Tencent and Alibaba as drivers of the industry. Pinduoduo had won the spot this year, but after two suspected cases of death from overwork at the company, it was abruptly replaced by Douyin in late January.

Beyond the red envelope wars, the program has become a stage to show off new technology. This year, Shenzhen startup UBTech Robotics marked the Year of the Ox with dancing ox robots.

Tech companies outside China are not in a position to benefit directly from the gala, as the Chinese public is unlikely to accept a foreign company as the program's red envelope partner. But the show is still worth watching as a look at the industry's latest trends.

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