Apple Inc. is giving $1 billion as an on China’s homegrown competitor to Technologies Inc., marking the technology giant’s largest investment in a critical market at a time when its global fortunes are flagging.

The investment in Chuxing Technology Co. announced late Thursday in California, came on the day that Apple briefly ceded its spot as the world’s most valuable company to Google parent Alphabet Inc.

Didi Chuxing—which investors are valuing at over $25 billion, making it one of China’s most valuable startups—is locked in a fierce battle with UberChina to attract riders and investors in China’s ride-share market.

The investment in Didi is an unusual one for Apple, which tends to prefer to buy small startups outright and absorb their technology into its product pipeline.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook, who has worked hard to build strong relationships in China with regular trips to the country, last month said he was more optimistic about the country’s economy. China may not provide the huge growth that it once did. But Mr. Cook said, “it’s a lot more stable than what I think is the common view of it.”

Didi is part of the country’s boom of Internet service apps racing to build scale through subsidies. Its expansion has been fueled mainly by investments from Internet giants and investment firms so far. It is new for a maker of highly profitable hardware to invest in the sector.

While many global startups including some in Silicon Valley have had difficulty raising money amid a slowdown in the global economy, Didi has been an exception. Its valuation has soared from just $6 billion in February 2015 when it was formed from the combination of two competing taxi-hailing companies. Investors are betting that the company will be able to eventually turn a profit after attracting more Chinese riders to its service.

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