Chinese tech CEOs just keep quitting

November 1, 2021, 10:29 AM UTC

Three CEOs of leading Chinese tech companies have retreated from the limelight this year, as Beijing continues its crackdown on internet firms. The latest departure occurred on Friday, when Kuaishou Technology, parent of an eponymous short-video app that rivals TikTok in China, announced its CEO, Su Hua, 39, had resigned from his leadership position, leaving cofounder Cheng Yixiao to take his place managing the app’s day-to-day operations.

“Su Hua continues to serve as the chairman of the board, an executive director, and a member of the remuneration committee, devoting more time to developing the company’s long-term strategy,” Kuaishou said in a statement on Friday, providing no explanation for the sudden change in management.

During Su’s eight-year tenure as CEO, Kuaishou erupted across China, closely trailing Douyin—the Chinese version of TikTok—and securing its position as the second most popular short-video app in the country.

Kuaishou is the dominant short-video app in China’s less-developed “lower tier” cities and rural areas. The company has leveraged its popularity in the rural market to enter the lucrative field of livestream e-commerce, providing a platform for farmers to market their produce directly to consumers.

The short-video app used the promise of its e-commerce business, as well as its advertising reach, to launch a $5.3 billion IPO in February. However, after rallying in the week after its debut, Kuaishou’s share price has plummeted since, shedding 76% of its peak value as of Monday.

Kuaishou’s sinking share price, in part, reflects a broad downturn in Chinese tech stocks this year, which have lost hundreds of billions of dollars in market cap, as Beijing’s crackdown on the industry spooks investors and company leaders. Since pulling the plug on fintech firm Ant Group’s IPO last year, Chinese regulators have increased their scrutiny of internet companies and have fundamentally rewritten the operating environment for certain industries, such as online tutoring, which Beijing essentially banned in July.

Beijing’s unpredictable crackdowns mean company executives have to spend a lot more time liaising with government officials to ensure their business stays on the right side of the shifting regulatory environment. And President Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” campaign to address China’s societal inequality has signaled to billionaire executives that their personal wealth is also under close scrutiny.

Not every CEO, it seems, is up for those challenges.

Colin Huang, founder of social e-commerce pioneer Pinduoduo, stepped down as CEO in 2020 and resigned from his role as company chairman in March. In May, Zhang Yiming, who founded TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, resigned from his chief executive role, too, choosing to stay on as the group’s chair.

None of the executives have said their decision to step back is connected to Beijing’s regulatory campaign against tech. Zhang and Su both said they want to focus more on long-term planning for their respective companies.

Kuaishou’s shares dropped 4% in trading Monday following news of Su’s resignation, but the company’s poor financials could also account for the slide.

Kuaishou reported net losses for two consecutive fiscal quarters this year as the short-video app burns cash to maintain users, subsidizing purchases on its e-commerce unit and enlisting costly influencers to promote its brand. The app also retreated from a disastrous attempt to penetrate the U.S. market, shutting down its overseas offering, Zynn, in August.

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