Didi co-founder steps down as president

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Jean Liu is stepping down as president and from the board of Didi, the Chinese ride-hailing giant she co-founded a decade ago and had led at the time of its botched US share sale in 2021.

Once Didi’s public ambassador and among the most high-profile female leaders in Chinese tech, the 45-year-old will remain at the company as chief people officer, according to an email sent by Didi chief Cheng Wei and Liu to employees on Sunday.

She joined Didi from Goldman Sachs in 2014 and hosted Apple’s Tim Cook two years later in Beijing, securing $1bn from the US tech giant to fuel Didi’s growth. She won billions more from investors such as SoftBank. When driver-passenger violence broke out in a Didi car, she flew to the scene to comfort relatives.

But after the group’s $4.4bn New York initial public offering came under investigation by Beijing, Liu went silent. The company delisted and suffered a $1bn fine from Chinese regulators for ‘vile’ breaches of the country’s data laws.

Liu made invisible her years of Weibo posts and took a more behind-the-scenes role at the company, two Didi employees said. Internally many blamed her for pushing the IPO and for the company’s ensuing regulatory troubles, they said.

In 2023, her top lieutenant, Stephen Zhu, who had followed Liu to Didi from Goldman Sachs, stepped down as a Didi director after earlier shedding his title as chief of international business.

In their memo to staff, Cheng said that although Liu would no longer be president, “the departments and responsibilities under her management remain unchanged” and that she was his “closest comrade and partner”.

Liu will focus on “organisational transformation and talent development, and work with me to promote the company’s efforts in social responsibility”, Cheng wrote. He added that Didi would not appoint a new president.

Liu said she initiated the change to focus on Didi’s long-term growth, noting she had “experienced many emotions and been deeply moved” during her 10 years at the company, and was “filled with anticipation and eagerness for the future”.

“Please rest assured, I will continue to fight alongside everyone to welcome the coming 10 years at Didi in the best state possible,” she said.

Liu’s exit from executive positions could delay the company’s hoped for Hong Kong listing, which shareholders have pushed for since the company moved to over-the-counter trading in the US in 2022. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange generally requires companies to wait a year to list after changing senior executives.

Liu’s title change comes as the Chinese group’s finances show signs of steadying. Last year, Didi narrowed its operating loss to Rmb5.7bn ($790mn) and swung to a Rmb535mn net profit with the help of investment and interest income.

The group retained the majority of its users during Beijing’s months-long probe, during which its app was banned. In 2021, Chinese officials were stationed for months at its Beijing offices.

The turmoil has left US investors with large losses. Didi’s stock price is still down about 65 per cent from its listing price of $14 a share and the debacle badly damaged investor confidence in Chinese tech companies. Beijing has yet to allow another large tech company to sell shares in the US.

Additional reporting by Cheng Leng in Hong Kong

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