The increased regulatory pressures are leading some internet executives to try to avoid drawing additional attention to themselves — none more so than Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire co-founder and one of China’s most celebrated entrepreneurs.
Mr. Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s chief executive in 2013 — also, according to the company, to focus on grand strategic direction. He stayed on as Alibaba’s executive chairman until 2019. But even in retirement, he remains the company’s most recognizable face.
Regulators summoned Mr. Ma and other executives at Ant Group, Alibaba’s fintech sister company, shortly before ordering a halt to Ant’s planned initial public offerings last fall. Mr. Ma is Ant’s controlling shareholder and stood to increase his wealth considerably with the share sales. Chinese financial regulators later ordered Ant to overhaul its business to address concerns that it was exploiting regulatory loopholes. Mr. Ma has made himself scarce in public ever since.
Last year, Colin Huang, the founder of Pinduoduo, a fast-growing shopping app and Alibaba rival, handed over the C.E.O. job while remaining company chairman. Eight months later, Mr. Huang relinquished that post, as well. Pinduoduo said he wanted to pursue research in the food and life sciences.
ByteDance has shuffled its top ranks several times since the beginning of 2020. Recently, it named its chief financial officer, Shouzi Chew, to serve concurrently as chief executive of TikTok, based in Singapore. That post was vacated last year by Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive who left after less than four months as TikTok became a geopolitical piñata between China and the United States.
Mr. Zhang has led ByteDance with a focus on global expansion. He has discouraged internal hierarchies and tried to cultivate a self-motivated work force so that the company can continue growing without losing the agility of a start-up.
“Often, when companies mature and expand, many fall into the trap of the C.E.O. becoming overly central — listening to presentations, handling approvals and making decisions reactively,” Mr. Zhang wrote in his letter to employees. “This leads to an overreliance on existing ideas already in the company.”