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Chinese tech billionaire Richard Liu gives up front office roles and direct ownership at JD, but is he still in control?

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One of China’s most prominent tech tycoons is relinquishing direct ownership and executive roles in various entities under the business empire he founded nearly a quarter century ago, triggering questions about his next steps after the abrupt end of a lengthy legal battle in the US involving a rape allegation.

Richard Liu Qiangdong, the billionaire founder of JD.com and the world’s 155th richest man with an estimated net worth of US$10.8 billion, has surrendered his 45 per cent stakes in each of four entities owned by the company’s logistics, healthcare and investment subsidiaries since September, recent corporate filings showed.

According to the filings, the equities were transferred to Miao Qin, vice-president and head of JD’s life and service business division, for “administration efficiency purpose” because Liu, a non-executive director, was no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of JD, which made it difficult to arrange signing of corporate documents.

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The latest moves came after Liu, 49, handed over his CEO role in April to long-time confidant and company veteran Xu Lei, in one of the entrepreneur’s most high-profile steps to remove himself from the daily grind at JD.

“Liu is mostly overseas these days and his absence in China could make administrative trivia, such as document signing, a hassle,” said Li Chengdong, founder and chief analyst at Beijing-based tech consultancy Dolphin, adding that JD, as an established conglomerate, can run smoothly without Liu’s constant presence.

JD did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

Liu was last seen in public last month, when a picture surfaced online showing him accompanying his pregnant wife, Zhang Zetian, at a supermarket in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A courtroom there was set to hear a civil rape case filed against him in 2019 by a female Chinese student, but a settlement was reached right before the trial began, relieving Liu of the need to testify.

Liu started to shed corporate and honorary roles after the rape allegation first surfaced in 2018, which led to Liu’s brief detainment by law enforcement in Minneapolis. While he was never charged with criminal offences and eventually returned to China, he gave up his membership in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a top political honour for any private entrepreneur in China.

Richard Liu (second from left) with his wife Zhang Zetian in an undated photo. Photo: Handout alt=Richard Liu (second from left) with his wife Zhang Zetian in an undated photo. Photo: Handout>

In September 2021, Liu stepped down as president of JD, with Xu taking on the role to lead “the day-to-day operation and collaborative development of various business units”. At the time, JD said Liu would devote more time to “formulating the company’s long-term strategies”.

Some analysts said Liu might be following the footsteps of several Big Tech founders, who have stepped aside amid China’s regulatory crackdown on the industry, but retain control in indirect ways.

Zhang Yiming, founder of TikTok owner ByteDance, remains hugely influential over strategic decisions at the company, despite ceding his CEO and board seat to his university roommate Liang Rubo last summer, the Post reported in November last year.

Liu’s recent transfer of equity interests may not necessarily result in a dilution in his control rights at JD, according to Kim Chang-hyun, assistant professor of strategy at the Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School.

Xu Lei (third from left), then-retail chief executive of JD.com, bangs a gong to mark company’s listing on the Hong Kong stock market at JD.com’s headquarters in Beijing in June 2020. Photo: AFP alt=Xu Lei (third from left), then-retail chief executive of JD.com, bangs a gong to mark company’s listing on the Hong Kong stock market at JD.com’s headquarters in Beijing in June 2020. Photo: AFP>

JD is listed on both the Nasdaq and Hong Kong stock exchanges under a dual-class share structure, an arrangement favoured by tech founders so they can exercise effective control over a company by holding only a special class of shares with superior voting rights.

“This is a common strategy often seen among founders of conglomerates,” Kim said.

When JD applied for a dual primary listing on the Hong Kong bourse in June 2020, its prospectus showed that Liu owned 78 per cent aggregate voting rights, despite holding just a 14 per cent stake in the company.

That same year, Liu stepped down from executive roles at around 230 companies under his sprawling empire, and walked away from another 18 in 2021, according to business data service Tianyancha.

In the first half of this year, Liu cashed out 6.6 billion yuan (US$930 million) by selling his personal stakes in JD Health and the American depositary shares he held personally through a vehicle called Max Smart.

A worker sorts packages for delivery at a JD.com warehouse in Beijing in September. Photo: AFP alt=A worker sorts packages for delivery at a JD.com warehouse in Beijing in September. Photo: AFP>

Today, Liu retains executive roles at 33 companies, compared with the 333 executive roles he once held. As of the end of March this year, however, Liu still owns 76 per cent of aggregate voting power at JD, a drop of just two percentage points from two years ago.

Meanwhile, other JD executives, including CEO Xu, each owns less than 1 per cent of the total ordinary shares, making it virtually impossible for anyone to challenge Liu’s business decisions.

The view that Liu still holds a tight grip on JD is echoed by a former employee who remains close to the company and said that internally, there are talks about Liu mulling a return to management.

Outside the company, however, Liu’s successor Xu has become the new face of JD.

The CEO attended last week’s World Internet Conference, China’s annual showcase of its model of internet governance, where he gave a speech touting JD’s role as a “real economy enterprise” and the company’s powerful supply chain, which he said is able to deliver parcels to 94 per cent of Chinese counties within 48 hours after an order was placed.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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