Corporate China

Weibo: Jingdong's Liu comes home, Sina Weibo loses lustre

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 12:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 12:23pm

A major homecoming for the top executive at e-commerce giant Jingdong is topping the news this week in China's microblog airwaves, which have been humming with gossip in the run-up to the Christmas holidays. Internet watchers will know I'm talking about -- Jingdong's talkative founder Liu Qiangdong, whose voice suddenly disappeared from the microblogging realm for much of this year. Now we're learning that his silence was due to his quiet departure from China for the US, where he spent a year in a study programme.

Elsewhere in the microblogging world, a couple of high level executives at UnionPay, operator of China's leading electronic payments network, and game operator 4399 are drawing attention to the fact that Sina's (Nasdaq: SINA) Weibo microblogging service may be past its peak and losing its lustre. I've also noticed this trend, which spotlights how China's Internet seems much more susceptible to fads than in other parts of the world.

Let's begin our weekly microblog round-up with Liu Qiangdong, whose return to China after a year in the US was detailed in a re-post of an article by Jingdong Vice President Wang Xiaosong. Wang doesn't provide any of his own commentary, but his act of re-posting seems to validate the accuracy of an article published by Tencent (HKEx: 700) on Liu's recent return to China.

The article is a bit vague, saying only that Liu was at Columbia University for some unspecified training. It adds that he recently returned to his company, China's second largest e-commerce player behind Alibaba, and has made several appearances since then at company events. The article also adds that many changes have taken place at Jingdong in Liu's absence, including executive shifts and also an official change in the company's name to Jingdong from its previous informal moniker of 360buy.com.

Liu became famous for freely speaking his mind, resulting in occasional conflicts with his big-name investors, including Russia's Digital Sky Technologies (DST). In the biggest of the apparent contradictions, Liu said at one point last year that Jingdong had no immediate plans for an IPO. But at the nearly same time, media reported the company was moving ahead with just such a plan and even hired investment banks and held investor conferences before finally scrapping the idea.

I suspect that Liu's year in the US was part of a compromise between him and his big investors, giving him a face-saving way of leaving the company for a year while more experienced managers made important strategic changes. Now that Liu is back, it will be interesting to see if he resumes his same outspoken role or lowers his profile and becomes more of a figurehead. I'm sure DST and other investors would prefer the latter, though Liu himself may want to assume his former role. Either way, Liu's return does seem to indicate that Jingdong's year-long overhaul is almost complete and the company could try to relaunch its IPO process early next year.

From Liu's homecoming, let's turn quickly to a couple of posts discussing the fading popularity of Sina Weibo, one from a mid-level executive at UnionPay and the other from the CEO of online game company 4399. In his remarks, UnionPay manager Cai Xueyong doubts that a recent campaign to revitalize Sina Weibo and clear it of increasing clutter will succeed. (Weibo post) Meantime, 4399 CEO Cai Wensheng comments on how much has changed on the Internet in the last 3 years. "Three years ago I checked Sina Weibo everyday. Now I just check it occasionally. I don't know if I'll even use it 3 years from now," he notes. (Weibo post)

Perhaps this pair is being just slightly pessimistic, since Sina Weibo still boasts hundreds of millions of registered users, including more than 100 million who are quite active and probably still check their messages daily. But that said, I do also sense that momentum is moving away from Sina Weibo, as newer, more mobile-friendly services like Tencent's WeChat gain momentum. It's probably too soon to write the death notice for Weibo, though I would also encourage Sina to move quickly to make its anticipated IPO for the unit before a more notable downward trend starts to emerge.