December 5, 2023

Twilight of Entrepreneurs in China as More Leave the Country

Their resignations underscore the growing concern among private entrepreneurs that China is veering away from the freewheeling capitalism that Deng Xiaoping and former Premier Zhu Rongji pioneered. Mr. Deng turned to entrepreneurs in the late 1970s to rebuild the economy after the devastation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and Mr. Zhu then led China into the World Trade Organization and toward its role as the world’s largest exporter.

Xi Jinping, the country’s leader since 2012, has moved China instead toward a much more authoritarian, state-led society in which national security concerns increasingly take precedence over economic growth. Business leaders and human rights activists alike who dare to question Mr. Xi publicly have been jailed as China has tightened the reins on the private sector.

Very wealthy entrepreneurs used to be “able to operate as they wished, as long as they did not step over certain political boundaries, but those boundaries were pretty loose even through the first term of Xi Jinping,” which ended in 2017, said Victor Shih, a specialist in Chinese business and politics at the University of California San Diego. “All that changed. They are no longer such stars.”

Jack Ma, a co-founder of Alibaba who went on to lead it to dominance in China’s e-commerce sector, has stepped down from the top jobs at the company. Colin Huang, founder of Pinduoduo, a rival to Alibaba, resigned as chairman early last year, less than a year after he stepped down as chief executive.

A year ago, Zhang Yiming, founder of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, said he would hand over the chief executive post to focus on long-term strategy. And as Shanghai went into a two-month lockdown in the spring as part of China’s “zero Covid” strategy, Zhou Hang, another prominent tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, left the city for Vancouver, British Columbia, where he issued a strong denunciation of China’s current policies.

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