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A generation ago even the wildly successful companies of an emergent Silicon Valley were seen by the rest of the economy as something of a niche, a sideshow to the main events on Wall Street and in industrial America. Those who weren’t paying attention did so at their peril. Trillions of dollars of market value later, Silicon Valley stalwarts drive the national economy’s agenda.
It’s altogether likely a generation from now the same will be said of the emergent champions of the Chinese technology industry. They are to Silicon Valley today what the nascent tech leaders were to the rest of the economy then: innovative, aggressive, hell-bent on winning, and springing from an environment that’s growing faster than anything around it.
China’s two dominant national champions are Tencent and Alibaba. They aren’t the only Chinese tech heavyweights that matter. But they are becoming increasingly more important—and valuable: each has a market capitalization that’s an order of magnitude bigger than the rest of the pack—and, fascinatingly, increasingly competitive with each other. They also are the subject of a major feature article in the July issue of Fortune Magazine, which posted online in the wee hours of Thursday morning on the East Coast and late in the afternoon in China.
Cynics say journalists write headlines first and then the stories. In this case it is literally true. “Ma versus Ma,”—for Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma—occurred to me the December day both billionaire entrepreneurs, who aren’t related, spoke at the Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou. I knew instantly that behind the delicious headline was the story of the most important business competition in the world today. Note that I wrote “the world,” not “China.”
In the early 2000s a tech observer could view any important development through the prism of the many things Google had on its plate. A similar claim could be made about Apple ten years later. Today, Tencent (TCEHY) and Alibaba (BABA) have so much going on from their overlapping investments and business strategies, to the alliances they are forming, and their slowly growing influence outside their home countries, that understanding them is critical to understanding business.
The Western audience still doesn’t intimately know these companies because they typically don’t use their products and services. (I now have my WeChat handle in my email signature, alongside my identical Twitter handle.) That will change, and anyone who doesn’t prepare for the shift will get left behind.