TikTok deal tests Microsoft’s decades of China experience

TikTok deal tests Microsoft’s decades of China experience

  • The US tech company hopes its connections will help it navigate storm safely

More than two decades of efforts by Microsoft to put down roots in China may soon bring a partial pay-off, if it succeeds in steering through the purchase of TikTok’s US business. But as relations between the US and China continue to deteriorate, the software company’s long-term bet on the Chinese market is also facing its most uncertain period yet. Microsoft’s involvement in the Chinese tech world, dating from its creation of a research centre in Beijing in the late 1990s, has left it with important personal connections. Zhang Yiming, the founder of ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, worked at Microsoft, though only for a few months before he left to join a start-up.

That was not unusual at the time: Microsoft’s research lab was known within China as an incubator for entrepreneurs in the late 1990s and 2000s, who then went on to propel the country’s tech explosion. The company has nurtured much talent — from Yin Qi, the founder of facial recognition giant Megvii, to Lin Bin, co-founder of mobile phone maker Xiaomi. Back then the freedom and global platform that Microsoft offered for cutting-edge computer-science research was unprecedented in China. Microsoft Research had the pick of the country’s best PhD graduates.