Corporate China

Weibo: China's internet old guard makes way for the new

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 3:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 5:55pm

These last few months have seen an interesting friendship chronicled online between three major Internet figures, with the top executives from leading web portal Sina (Nasdaq: SINA), e-commerce leader Alibaba and online game operator Giant Interactive (NYSE: GA) spending increasing time together. The camaraderie between Alibaba founder and Chairman Jack Ma, Sina CEO and Chairman Charles Chao and Giant Chairman Shi Yuzhu has been chronicled on Sina's Weibo microblogging service, where the three have been seen engaging in an array of activities that often look more like hobbies than the businesses each has become famous for leading.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these three executives are all in states of transition, as each prepares to hand over the reins of his company to a new generation of leaders. Ma made headlines in March when he formally handed over the CEO title of Alibaba to Jonathan Lu, while he formally retained the chairman's title. Shi made a nearly identical move just a month later in April, standing down as CEO of Giant while also retaining the chairman's title.

Chao also appears to be moving in a similar direction, taking over as Sina's chairman last year to complement the CEO title he has held since 2006. Earlier this year, the company then named two new co-presidents, and said a broader restructuring would see Chao focus on development of Sina's Weibo microblogging and mobile businesses. That has led some to speculate that Chao also may be slowly relinquishing many of his CEO responsibilities to make way for a new generation leaders.

This kind of transition to a second generation of Internet leaders looks like a good and welcome move, even though it could see the loss of some of the sector's most colorful figures as they are replaced by more traditional corporate characters. Still, I suspect that this trio of Internet leaders may never be able to truly leave behind the companies they founded or led for years, helping to build those firms from start-ups to their current status as major industry players.

In that light, this series of playful Weibo postings over the last few months and the activities they chronicle looks almost like a deliberate effort by these three figures to convince not only the world but also themselves that they are truly headed for retirement. My favorite is a post by Chao this summer, where we see two blurry photos of Shi Yuzhu standing over Ma Yun, the former teaching the latter how to play a big white piano that appears to be at someone's home. Another series of posts by Chao in September chronicles a soccer match between teams from Alibaba and Sina, and includes photos of Jack Ma dressed in an red and white Alibaba jersey and blowing on a long yellow horn.  

The friendship between these three is understandable, as all were some of China's earliest Internet entrepreneurs and executives who have known each other for years from days when the industry was still in its infancy. The friendship is also interesting for its geographic diversity, since Chao is based in Beijing, Shi in Shanghai and Ma at Alibaba's base in Hangzhou.

At the end of the day, it will be interesting to see how much these three figures remain involved in their companies as they hand over the reins to a new generation. I suspect that all three will remain involved to some extent, especially Ma who has been with Alibaba since its founding and in many ways embodies the heart and soul of the company. At the same time, I do think it's good for a new generation of leaders to take over at not only these three but also many of China's other early Internet firms, even though we will undoubtedly lose some colorful and innovative personalities in the process.