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Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance, poses for a photograph at the company's headquarters in Beijing on August 17, 2017. Photo: Bloomberg

ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming quits company board, but remains powerful behind the scenes, sources say

  • Zhang Yiming, 38, is said to have ceded his board seat to Liang Rubo, his successor as CEO of ByteDance
  • Questions over who is in charge of ByteDance and TikTok have repeatedly sparked concerns in Washington

Zhang Yiming, the 38-year-old billionaire founder of TikTok owner ByteDance, has quit the board of the company, reigniting questions over how much control he will retain over the world’s most valuable unicorn.

Zhang has surrendered his board seat of Caymans-registered ByteDance to new CEO Liang Rubo, his university roommate and long-time collaborator who is taking the reins from Zhang, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak to media.

The man who turned ByteDance and TikTok into a global sensation

The news was first reported by Chinese media LatePost on Tuesday night.

ByteDance, which is a private company and has no obligation to publicly disclose changes in its board of directors, declined to comment.

As China’s first globally successful social media operator, ByteDance has repeatedly fielded concerns from Washington over who is ultimately in control of the operations of its wildly popular short video platform TikTok.

During a US congressional hearing last week, Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, said that the firm does not share American user data with the Chinese government. Under questioning from Republican Senator Ted Cruz, Beckerman said TikTok has “no affiliation” with ByteDance.

Earlier this year, ByteDance quietly removed information about its corporate structure and board of directors from its website, which showed that the company had five board members, including Zhang, Neil Shen from Sequoia Capital, Philippe Laffont from Coatue Management, Arthur Dantchik from Susquehanna International Group, and William Ford from General Atlantic.
The latest information about ByteDance’s board composition is not publicly available, although a Bloomberg News report last week indicated that Susquehanna is trying to sell its stake. ByteDance’s valuation in the private market recently reached US$400 billion, according to anonymous trades posted on a Chinese website.

As Chinese tech tycoons retreat, some wonder about true motives

Despite giving up his board seat, Zhang, who has a net worth close to US$60 billion according to Forbes, will remain a key decision maker behind the scenes when it comes to strategic issues, one person with a close understanding of ByteDance told the South China Morning Post. Another source said Zhang is still actively sharing his thoughts on ByteDance’s development in internal group chats.

Zhang’s retreat from the limelight comes as ByteDance announced a sweeping business restructure this week, separating out TikTok as a stand-alone business unit. In addition, Liang will oversee the finances of ByteDance, allowing Chew Shou Zi, based in Singapore, to relinquish his role as chief financial officer to focus on his job as TikTok’s CEO.

Zhang, who created ByteDance almost a decade ago in a Beijing residential flat, has long maintained a low profile, a sharp contrast to the conspicuous success of TikTok, which said it topped 1 billion global monthly users in September, while its China-only sibling app Douyin has more than 600 million daily active users.

The last time that Zhang was seen in public was in late June, when he donated 500 million yuan (US$77 million) to set up an education fund in his home city of Longyan in China’s eastern Fujian province. The local education bureau published a picture of Zhang visiting the high school he attended.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Billionaire founder of TikTok owner quits company board