The 38-year-old ByteDance CEO, Zhang Yiming, has declared his plan to step down by the end of the year as Beijing intensifies its efforts to curb the influence of China’s internet firms. The announcement has drawn speculation from outsiders.
In a May 20 letter addressing his employees, Zhang revealed this sweeping decision, claiming that he would step aside but remain dedicated to the long-term development of corporate strategies, organizational culture, and social responsibility of the company. He explained that he was not the best person for the position of CEO for not being social, hoping to hand off daily management.
He said he would remain in the position until the end of 2021, after which his long-term partner and future successor, Liang Rubo, would step in. Liang is also a ByteDance cofounder, current human resources head and one of Zhang’s college roommates.
Launched in March 2012, ByteDance has transformed into a global tech giant with video sharing platforms Douyin and TikTok, an overseas version of Douyin. Currently, Zhang with a fortune of $35.6 billion is one of the richest internet tycoons in China, according to Forbes.
The timing of Zhang’s resignation, however, comes alongside the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) efforts to increase its scrutiny of China’s internet firms.
On April 27, the CCP-controlled Internet Society of China issued an industry proposal requesting internet companies run their platforms in compliance with laws on antitrust and against misuse of ByteDance’s Apriori algorithm.
In fact, Beijing’s three regulators interviewed representatives of China’s top 34 internet companies on April 3, including ByteDance, Tencent, Baidu, Jingdong, Pinduoduo, and ordered them to rectify any anti-competitive practices within a month, according to China’s news portal Tencent.
As early as April 10, regulators fined Alibaba—China’s biggest e-commerce company—a record $2.8 billion for anti-competitive practices, which have been common in China.
Zhang’s stepping down is not an isolated case but the latest in a series of premature retirements by Chinese moguls in the industry, which has sparked concern.
On March 1, Colin Huang, the founder of fast-growing Chinese e-commerce giant Pinduoduo, resigned as chairman at the age of 41. He claimed that his decision was due to drastic external changes and internal management challenges; and that he would go into foundational studies in food and life sciences.
Pinduoduo was listed on the technology-focused Nasdaq stock exchange in New York in July 2018 and is valued at $163 billion, according to Forbes.
In September 2019, then-48-year-old Ma Huateng, Tencent chairman and CEO, resigned as legal person and executive director of Tencent Credit Co. Ltd.
Shortly after, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, resigned as chairman at the age of 55. Alibaba is the world’s biggest e-commerce business, an internet conglomerate with interests in e-commerce, mobile payments, cloud services, and digital media.
Though Ma denied that CCP leaders in Beijing had pushed him down, the timing of the tycoon’s resignation was consistent with the regime’s heightened scrutiny.
China expert Professor Feng Chongyi at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney (UTS) told The Epoch Times on May 21 that there are a host of reasons why China’s tech giants’ CEOs resign, including political purges and operational errors.
He said many big bosses have ties to powerful political figures in the CCP. The former would be forced to leave their positions if the latter got sacked, or if their allegiance to the CCP’s authority is deemed inadequate, according to Feng.
Dr. Wang Juntao, a democracy advocate, said that a CEO’s resignation in China could be involuntary under the pressure of the communist regime in some cases.
Evidence shows that the CCP has tightened its grip on non-public businesses by establishing party branches within them.
According to annual reports released by the CCP’s Organization Department, 53.1 percent of China’s non-public businesses had CCP branches in 2014. The figure rose to 73.1 percent by 2017.
Any enterprise, public or private, with three or more CCP members among its employees is required to establish a party branch, as is set out in the party’s Constitution.
Party branches have been common across China’s internet firms, including ByteDance, Baidu, YouKu, Sohu, Sina, Qianlong, Qihoo 360, Meituan, 58.com, Zhihu, and the list can go on and on, according to the CCP-controlled Beijing Internet Association (BIA).
Luo Ya and Hong Tai contributed to this report.