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The landing page on Sina Corp.'s Sina Weibo microblogging service app is displayed on an Apple Inc. iPhone 5s in an arranged photograph in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, April 22, 2014. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)
The landing page on Sina Corp.'s Sina Weibo microblogging service app is displayed on an Apple Inc. iPhone 5s in an arranged photograph in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, April 22, 2014. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

China’s Twitter is making a lot of investors very happy Add to ...

At first blush, Twitter Inc. and Weibo Corp. have a lot in common. The micro-blogging social networks earn most of their revenue from advertising, have added flexibility around their 140-character limits and have been the subject of intense takeover speculation.

Yet there’s one big, glaring difference between them: their stock prices. While Twitter has slumped 27 per cent this year, Weibo’s shares have almost tripled as the company’s unrivaled dominance in the Chinese market bolsters it sales outlook. At about $11-billion (U.S.), the Beijing-based social media platform’s market value is now fast approaching Twitter’s $12.6-billion. Unlike Weibo, the San Francisco-based micro-blogger, worth $34-billion as recently as last year, is facing growing competition from the likes of Snap Inc. (the parent company of Snapchat), Instagram and Facebook Inc.

“Weibo is the only social media platform in China, due to no competition from non-local players, such as Twitter, Instagram and YouTube,” said Marie Sun, an analyst who covers the stock at Morningstar Investment Service in Hong Kong. “The foreign players can’t enter the Chinese market due to strict censorship and are blocked here. Therefore, Weibo caught the chance to evolve.”

While major international social networks such as Facebook have seen a pickup in growth in some emerging-market countries, most remain blocked in the mainland.

Weibo, which started in 2009 and was spun off in 2014 by web portal Sina Corp., posted net income and revenue that beat analysts’ estimates last quarter. The U.S.-traded stock now sells for 51 times blended forward 12-month earnings, exceeding the average of 36 times for its global peers, including Twitter.

With an average of 282 million daily active users in June – a 33-per-cent increase from a year earlier – Weibo’s monthly active user growth has also eclipsed that of Twitter. And while Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat, China’s most popular social-networking app, boasts more than 806 million monthly active users, the platform serves a different function. WeChat is as an all-purpose super-app for private messaging, doing the job of Facebook, Uber, Paypal, Tinder and many other apps combined. Weibo serves as a first stop for finding and sharing information on public-facing accounts.

Meanwhile, Weibo’s ad revenue has also increased 45 per cent from the year prior. And in a sign of growing confidence in the micro-blogger, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., China’s biggest publicly traded company, increased its stake earlier this year.

While Weibo’s U.S.-traded shares on Monday reached the highest since the company’s 2014 initial public offering, Twitter’s have fallen below the $26 price of its 2013 IPO as revenue growth has declined and user growth has flattened. Analysts now predict Twitter will post revenue of $2.85-billion in 2017, down from an earlier estimate of $4.3-billion a year ago. The company posted a 3 per cent increase in monthly active users last quarter compared with the past year.

Spokespeople for Twitter and Weibo declined to comment on the companies’ stock performance.

In the weeks since CNBC first reported that 10-year-old Twitter was taking a hard look at a sale, shares of the company have gyrated. They initially surged 21 per cent after reports the company had attracted interest from some Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Salesforce.com Inc. But they quickly sank 20 per cent after the potential bidders were said to have lost interest. The stock regained some ground this week after reports that Salesforce may still be interested in purchasing Twitter.

Besides leveraging advances in live video streaming and growing user penetration in smaller cities, Weibo owes a lot of its success to its long track record of co-operation with China’s government, said Henry Guo, an analyst at New York-based M Science LLC who has covered U.S.-listed Chinese stocks for a decade.

“Nobody can really enter this space unless you have a really, really good relationship with the government,” he said.

China’s Internet has become increasingly censored as the government shores up its ability to rein in online discourse and monitor public opinion. The country’s top Internet regulator ordered major online companies to stop original news reporting in July. And effective Oct. 1, authorities investigating criminal cases have the right to secretly ask for information posted on social media, according to regulations published Sept. 21.

Chinese authorities have also held discussions with internet providers on a pilot project intended to pave the way for the government to start taking board seats and stakes of at least 1 per cent in those companies. In return, they would get a license to provide news on a daily basis.

“I think the government feels comfortable with and believes Weibo is in the control of the government,” Mr. Guo said. “From day one, that’s been the model. Weibo has to allow the government to monitor their accounts. Weibo has a lot of employees involved in account monitoring, and some have a government background – it’s kind of jointly doing this account monitoring.”

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