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ByteDance CEO Is The Third Chinese Tech Billionaire To Step Down In Recent Years

In a surprise announcement on Thursday, billionaire ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming said he will be stepping down from the CEO job by the end of the year, when he’ll transition to a new role at the Chinese social media giant. Best known for his company’s short-video app TikTok and news aggregation app Toutiao, Zhang, who’s just 37 years old, is the latest Chinese tech billionaire to step away from his company in recent years. 

“The truth is, I lack some of the skills that make an ideal manager. I’m more interested in analyzing organizational and market principles, and leveraging these theories to further reduce management work, rather than actually managing people. Similarly, I’m not very social, preferring solitary activities like being online, reading, listening to music and daydreaming about what may be possible,” Zhang said in a statement. “After several months of thinking about this, I came to the conclusion that transitioning out of the role of CEO, with all of the related day-to-day responsibilities, would enable me to have greater impact on longer-term initiatives.” 

Zhang, who’s worth $36 billion, announced that Liang Rubo, who formerly headed ByteDance’s research and development and who currently leads its human resources department, will be his replacement. The two men will work together on the transition in the next six months. Zhang has not said what his new role at ByteDance will be, though he indicated that he will work more on philanthropy and long-term strategies once he hands over the day-to-day operations. ByteDance did not respond to a request for comment from Forbes.  

Two other prominent Chinese tech billionaires have made similar moves. Colin Zheng Huang, the founder and former CEO of online discounter Pinduoduo, stepped away from his company this year. In March, Huang, who’s now worth $46.3 billion, announced that he was giving up his chairman seat and leaving the board, after resigning as CEO in July 2020. Huang, 41, founded Pinduoduo in 2015 after a stint as a Google engineer and took the company public on the Nasdaq just three years later. The e-commerce firm quickly gained popularity through its group buying schemes—customers get discounts if they form groups with other online buyers—and saw its business explode during the Covid-19 pandemic. Pinduoduo’s 2020 revenue of $9.1 billion was a 97% increase over 2019, and it now boasts the highest number of active buyers in China, with 788 million people.

Huang said in March that he plans to spend his new free time pursuing food and life sciences research; Pinduoduo claims to be China’s largest platform for selling agricultural goods—mainly produce grown by farmers. “I hope that my stepping down as Chairman of the Board will aid this young person into independent adulthood,” Huang said in a statement.


The third high-profile resignation in the past couple of years: Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who retired as the e-commerce conglomerate’s chairman in September 2019 and stepped down from its board in 2020. A former teacher, Ma—now worth $46.6 billion—cofounded Alibaba in 1999 and gave up the CEO role in 2013. The 56-year-old has since spent more time on philanthropy through his Jack Ma Foundation, but still ran into trouble after he spoke out against Chinese regulators in a Shanghai forum in October 2020. 

In November, regulators halted the IPO of Ant Group, which was expected to be a record-setting dual listing in Shanghai and Hong Kong just days before the planned public offering. Since then, Ant Group, a fintech firm that spun out of Alibaba, has been undergoing restructuring. An antitrust investigation into Alibaba also resulted in a $2.8 billion fine—the largest ever in China. 

“Three companies is a pretty small sample, but it certainly looks as if Beijing is continuing with its efforts to bring even the biggest tech giants under firm control by the party-state,” says Aaron Friedberg, a politics and international affairs professor at Princeton University. “If they aren’t being actively squeezed out, some CEOs may be choosing to step aside to avoid the possibility of running afoul of the regime, with all that that could entail for their personal fortunes and their freedom.”

The resignations of Zhang, Huang and Ma have come as tech companies are increasingly being put under a microscope in China, as President Xi Jinping looks to rein in the power and risks posed by the new tech giants. Besides Alibaba, news reports emerged in April that internet media firm Tencent, best known for its online games and messenger app WeChat, is facing a potential $1.5 billion fine as part of an antitrust investigation. A spokesperson for Tencent did not reply to a request for comment. Hong Kong listed e-commerce firm Meituan also announced in the same month that it’s under an antitrust investigation in China.

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