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JD.com founder Richard Liu steps down in latest Chinese tech chief exit

Richard Liu has stepped down as chief executive of JD.com, the Chinese ecommerce group he founded more than two decades ago, marking the latest exit for one of the country’s top entrepreneurs.

Beijing’s months-long campaign to rein in Big Tech has spurred several Chinese entrepreneurs to flee executive roles in favour of working from behind the scenes, as private business in the country comes under greater regulator scrutiny.

ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming shed his formal titles last year, while the chief executive of its main Chinese rival, Kuaishou, also moved to lower his profile.

At JD’s ecommerce rival Pinduoduo, founder Colin Huang left all of his executive roles at the company and the head of Jack Ma’s fintech upstart Ant Group resigned.

JD promoted president Xu Lei as its new chief executive. The 47-year-old had long been touted as JD’s next head after leading its main retail division for years and taking over daily responsibilities for running the company in September. He will also join the company’s board, JD said on Thursday.

Liu plans to stay on as chair and is JD’s controlling shareholder, holding a separate class of shares that gives him about 77 per cent of the total voting power of the company.

“JD has built a strong footing in the industry,” Liu said in a statement. “I’ll devote more of my time to JD’s long-term strategies and future drivers.”

Liu’s tenure at JD was marred by his 2018 arrest in Minnesota on allegations of sexual assault, which he denied. No charges were brought against him by US prosecutors.

JD said Liu would focus on strategy, mentoring upcoming leaders and to continue “contributing to the revitalisation of rural areas”, in a nod to Beijing’s demand that its tycoons do more for the country. Liu this year donated $2bn worth of JD shares to charity.

JD has generally performed well under Liu’s watch with revenues up more than 10 times since its Nasdaq public offering in 2014 and its stock price rising 211 per cent. The company’s Hong Kong shares fell as much as 3.6 per cent in early trading on Thursday, more than the 1.8 per cent fall for the Hang Seng Tech index.

Liu’s formal exit as chief comes amid a Chinese regulatory crackdown on tech that has dented the share prices of the country’s largest internet companies and increasingly led to job cuts as growth has slowed.

JD has so far avoided the brunt of Chinese regulators and its business has held up better than rivals such as Alibaba, with sales of Rmb952bn ($149bn) last year, up 27.6 per cent from the year before. But the company also resorted to job cuts this spring to get costs under control after years of aggressive hiring.

Li Chengdong, head of the Haitun ecommerce think-tank, said Liu’s exit was probably driven by a shared desire from Chinese executives to “get out of the public eye and focus on higher level company strategy”, although he expected Liu to be more hands-off than the other entrepreneurs that have exited recently.

“Xu Lei has done a good job growing JD Retail over the past four years . . . so he’s the right person to take the CEO role,” said Li.

Xu has been at JD for more than a decade, working as the company’s chief marketing officer and head of JD Wireless before taking over the retail unit.

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