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Tencent's AI chatbot dubbed "XiaoBing" no longer produces messages critical of the Chinese leadership.
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Political motive may be behind negative focus on Tencent

Chinese tech giant seen drawing controversies ahead of party congress

YU NAKAMURA, Nikkei staff writer | China

GUANGZHOU, China -- Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings has found itself in hot water with authorities on multiple fronts lately in what could be a politically motivated campaign in the lead-up to an important political gathering in autumn.  

The latest controversy surrounds a self-learning chatbot that can converse with people on Tencent's QQ messaging platform. The company recently suspended the feature due to reports of users receiving inflammatory responses from the artificial intelligence program. For example, a message proclaiming "long live the Communist Party" prompted the chatbot to question the longevity of the "corrupt, incompetent party."

Users can still access XiaoBing, one of Tencent's AI-powered chatbots, on WeChat, its most widely known social networking service. But an entry such as "long live the Communist Party" would generate more evasive feedback.

"I don't understand because I'm still too young," XiaoBing, which is cast as a young girl, would say. Pressing her further would elicit the question, "What exactly do you want to know?" The AI chatbot has evidently been reprogrammed.

Even Tencent's core gaming segment is not immune from negative publicity. The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, slammed the business in July for allegedly creating a culture of addiction. The paper cited a boy who committed suicide after his father scolded him for spending too much time playing "Honor of Kings," Tencent's hit smartphone game. The company acquiesced by announcing restrictions on play time as well as other constraints for underage users.

Also in July, Tencent shut down a large number of accounts after Beijing city officials increased scrutiny on entertainment news and information blogs.

What makes this string of highly public incidents noteworthy is that these services have been around for some time without attracting much attention. "Some kind of political motive must be behind the succession of criticisms against Tencent," said an industry insider.

In China, it is said that a political heavyweight can always be found lurking in the shadows of a major enterprise. Coincidentally, the twice-a-decade Communist Party congress will decide China's new leadership this fall. It would not be unusual for major corporations to be dragged into the power struggle during the lead-up, according to observers. 

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