Tencent Holdings founder Pony Ma Huateng will not hand out red packets to employees for the Lunar New Year, the first time this has happened in nearly two decades, as China deals with the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus.

Shenzhen-based Tencent has canceled its traditional hongbao handout to staff on the first working day after this year’s Spring Festival, which is on February 1, according to a post released on the company’s social media account on Tuesday.

Tencent Holdings chairman and chief executive Pony Ma Huateng hands out red packets to employees for Lunar New Year in 2019. (Picture: Handout)

It did not provide a specific reason for the cancellation, but reminded employees to stay healthy during the public holiday, which starts on Friday. There was also no indication about the electronic distribution of red packets to employees via Tencent’s WeChat app.

A spokesman for Tencent declined to comment about the cancelled activity, which has long enabled many company staff to meet face-to-face with Ma and other senior management.

“It’s a little bit frustrating not to meet Ma this year,” said one Tencent employee who declined to be identified. “Tencent can send out red packets to us via WeChat, but it is not the same as the tradition we’ve been used to.”

Ma, Tencent’s chairman and chief executive, has said that handing out red packets to staff for nearly two decades allowed him to personally offer good wishes to each employee. The tradition continued even when WeChat’s Red Packet feature was launched in 2014 as a means to send money electronically during the Lunar New Year.

Last year, the queue for red packets snaked around Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen’s Nanshan district, all the way up to the 48th floor of the building, where senior management greeted employees. Staff queued in the shape of a giant fu character, which means prosperity.

Tencent Holdings employees wait in line last year to receive red packets from senior management, led by founder Pony Ma Huateng, at the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen. (Picture: Handout)

The most diehard of hongbao getters last year waited overnight for more than 12 hours to be the first person to get the “blessing” from Ma, who was dressed in a bright red jumper.

The decision by Tencent, which runs the world’s largest video games business by revenue and Chinese social media giant WeChat, to cancel its hongbao handout to staff comes as the Wuhan coronavirus has already spread to 20 other cities in China.

By Tuesday, 291 cases of the newly discovered virus had been officially confirmed on the mainland. Of those, 270 cases were from Hubei province, where the virus’ epicenter is located, and 21 cases were recorded in six other cities – Beijing, Shanghai and four in Guangdong province.

The outbreak comes just days before tens of millions of Chinese travelers take part in the “world’s largest human migration” during the Lunar New Year holiday.

“I think it’s smart to cancel the activity because the large gathering could put colleagues in danger of being infected with the new coronavirus,” said another Tencent employee who did not wish to be named. “Safety is most important at this time.”