In 2020, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans found themselves with enough free time and idle hands to turn TikTok, already a popular video-sharing app, into a full-fledged cultural sensation. Before the year was over, its Chinese parent company ByteDance would become embroiled in controversy when former President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok unless its American interests were sold off to a United States-based company. Although ultimately the power move was never fully executed, the controversy fueled the app’s popularity stateside. The entire ordeal produced nothing but stress for ByteDance’s founder and the app’s creator, CEO Zhang Yiming. Recently, in 2021 the reclusive self-made Chinese entrepreneur announced his stepping down as the company’s head, citing his own social difficulties. With his proven track record and large personal fortune, how will Zhang follow such a massive success?
In 2020, Zhang found his company stuck in the middle of a high-tension battle between his home country China and Trump’s increasingly volatile war of words, a fight that wound up largely fizzling out with the election of President Joe Biden, who quickly rescinded the impending ban of TikTok. Deals with Oracle and Walmart to purchase U.S. operations of TikTok are reportedly still underway, although the pressure to sell has been relieved a bit — for now. The attention, scrutiny, and criticism aimed at ByteDance took a toll on the CEO, a reluctant public figure who prefers innovating ideas behind the scenes to the practical and day-to-day management of the company. His successor, ByteDance co-founder Liang Rubo, will take over the top executive role, with Zhang seeing his partner’s management skills more suited to handle the company’s operations.
The controversy in the U.S. isn’t the only impetus for his resignation; Chinese President Xi Jinping intends to crack down on perceived tech monopolies and internet businesses. Douyin, the Chinese counterpart to TikTok, has an older median audience and is dominated by news and government propaganda rather than viral dance videos and political criticism or discourse. With Liang taking the reins at ByteDance, and CFO Chew Shou Zi now at the helm of TikTok itself, Zhang is free to move to a more behind-the-scenes role focusing on the company’s big picture ideas. These major movies coincide with ongoing rumors of an impending initial public offering by the company, although there are currently no concrete plans for going public. With an estimated net worth of nearly $35 billion, Zhang has the flexibility to sit back and see what happens.