Zhang Yiming, who helped found TikTok’s Chinese parent company and turn it into a globe-straddling internet giant, will step down as its chief executive at the end of the year to focus on long-term strategy, he wrote in a letter to employees dated Wednesday.
Mr. Zhang’s co-founder and head of human resources, Liang Rubo, will take the reins as chief executive at the parent company, ByteDance, which also owns a slew of other entertainment apps and web platforms in China and other countries.
“After handing over my role as C.E.O., and removing myself from the responsibilities of daily management, I will have the space to explore long-term strategies, organizational culture and social responsibility, with a more objective perspective on the company,” Mr. Zhang wrote.
The letter, which ByteDance posted on its website, did not address whether the leadership transition would affect Mr. Zhang’s role as company chairman. ByteDance representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Zhang, 38, is stepping away from day-to-day management at a time when China’s government is ramping up its scrutiny of big internet firms like ByteDance, leading other tech bosses to try to keep a low profile.
ByteDance, founded in 2012, is China’s first truly global internet company. With TikTok, it has achieved a level of commercial success and cultural influence that none of the country’s other tech powerhouses have managed outside China’s borders.
But that success also put ByteDance in tension with world governments that are uneasy with China’s growing high-tech capabilities and with the often-opaque ways in which big private enterprises in China need to placate government authorities to stay in business.
India, previously one of TikTok’s largest markets, banned the video app last year, citing national security. Under President Donald J. Trump, the White House threatened to do similarly, though court challenges stymied that plan. ByteDance and Mr. Zhang have held talks with Oracle and other suitors about selling TikTok to assuage the U.S. government’s concerns about the app’s Chinese ownership. No such sale has taken place.
Closer to home for ByteDance, Chinese officials have been taking a hard look at the business practices of the country’s internet heavyweights. Last month, regulators ordered 34 of the industry’s biggest names — ByteDance included — to put “national interest” first and abide by tougher rules governing fair competition and consumer protection. They also imposed a $2.8 billion fine on Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, for what they said was monopolistic behavior.
The increased regulatory pressures are leading some internet executives to try to avoid drawing additional attention to themselves — none more so than Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire co-founder and one of China’s most celebrated entrepreneurs.
Mr. Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s chief executive in 2013 — also, according to the company, to focus on grand strategic direction. He stayed on as Alibaba’s executive chairman until 2019. But even in retirement, he remains the company’s most recognizable face.
Regulators summoned Mr. Ma and other executives at Ant Group, Alibaba’s fintech sister company, shortly before ordering a halt to Ant’s planned initial public offerings last fall. Mr. Ma is Ant’s controlling shareholder and stood to increase his wealth considerably with the share sales. Chinese financial regulators later ordered Ant to overhaul its business to address concerns that it was exploiting regulatory loopholes. Mr. Ma has made himself scarce in public ever since.
Last year, Colin Huang, the founder of Pinduoduo, a fast-growing shopping app and Alibaba rival, handed over the C.E.O. job while remaining company chairman. Eight months later, Mr. Huang relinquished that post, as well. Pinduoduo said he wanted to pursue research in the food and life sciences.
ByteDance has shuffled its top ranks several times since the beginning of 2020. Recently, it named its chief financial officer, Shouzi Chew, to serve concurrently as chief executive of TikTok, based in Singapore. That post was vacated last year by Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive who left after less than four months as TikTok became a geopolitical piñata between China and the United States.
Mr. Zhang has led ByteDance with a focus on global expansion. He has discouraged internal hierarchies and tried to cultivate a self-motivated work force so that the company can continue growing without losing the agility of a start-up.
“Often, when companies mature and expand, many fall into the trap of the C.E.O. becoming overly central — listening to presentations, handling approvals and making decisions reactively,” Mr. Zhang wrote in his letter to employees. “This leads to an overreliance on existing ideas already in the company.”
His successor as C.E.O., Mr. Liang, attended the same college: Nankai University, in the eastern Chinese city of Tianjin. The two founded another company together before starting ByteDance.
“The truth is, I lack some of the skills that make an ideal manager,” Mr. Zhang wrote in his letter. “Similarly, I’m not very social, preferring solitary activities like being online, reading, listening to music and daydreaming about what may be possible.”
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