Jean Liu drives Didi’s international image

After a Didi driver was murdered by his passenger in the central province of Hunan in 2019, it was Jean Liu, the president of the Chinese ride-hailing app, who flew to the scene to console his family.

Later, on Weibo, the Chinese microblog, she admitted to feeling “weak and scared” when making the trip and wrote: “We beg that you all give us another chance to make amends so we might emerge from this cocoon as a butterfly.”

The 43-year-old’s role as a firefighter and global dealmaker for Didi paid off this week, as it made the biggest debut on Wall Street for a Chinese company since Alibaba’s initial public offering in 2014.

The company’s dominance in ride-hailing in China makes it especially exposed to regulatory crackdown. The authorities have issued regular warnings over everything from safety to potential antitrust probes for price-fixing and unfair pay for drivers. On Friday, just two days after its IPO, it came under fire from cybersecurity regulators, who said they wanted to investigate its data practices.

While Didi’s founder, chair and chief executive, Cheng Wei, cuts a low profile, Liu has long been the public ambassador for Didi, often the sole woman on her panels at global technology conferences and delivering speeches on China’s tech scene, as well as diversity and sustainability.

She is central to Didi’s push to become a “truly global” company, a goal that dovetails with Beijing’s desire to build internationally competitive tech champions.

In a speech to the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum in November, Liu said that Didi intends to differentiate itself from other global ride-hailing peers by not taking a “cookie cutter” approach to entering new countries. “Lots of western companies take a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said.

In China, she has 10m followers on Weibo, often meets drivers, and personally responds to complaints about the company. Her open and personal tone helped Didi weather its worst domestic scandal, a string of murders and safety scandals involving drivers and female passengers in 2018 and 2019.

After graduating with computer science degrees from Peking university and Harvard, Liu joined Goldman Sachs, where she worked for more than a decade in Hong Kong, rising rapidly to lead regional operations.

She decided to leave her position as head of Goldman Sachs Asia to join Didi in 2014, as the company faced an expensive war of attrition with rivals Kuaidi Dache and Uber.

In interviews with Chinese media, Liu has described how she originally came to know Cheng and Didi as part of Goldman’s efforts to invest in the next generation of Chinese technology start-ups but never landed the deal. 

Instead, Cheng took her up on an offer she made as a joke over dinner: if she could not invest in Didi, then she might as well come work for the company.

But in September 2015, Liu sent a company-wide email saying that she had had surgery for breast cancer and was feeling in good health. For many employees it was the first they heard of her illness.

A year later, she would tell Didi’s annual meeting that it felt like she had “just found a runway and was ready to take-off when a clap of thunder suddenly grounded [me]”.

Liu has spoken about how her choice to join Didi was in part inspired by her father, Liu Chuanzhi, the founder of Lenovo Group, the world’s largest maker of laptops which spurred its global dominance by acquiring IBM’s laptop division in 2005.

And she was not the only Liu of her generation to leave a mark on China’s tech landscape. At the height of Didi’s cash-burning price war with Uber, Liu had to compete with her cousin, Liu Zhen, a former Silicon Valley lawyer who was head of strategy at Uber China at the time.

The stand-off ended with Didi acquiring Uber’s China business in exchange for a 12.8 per cent stake in Didi and a board seat for Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder and then chief executive. 

Arguably, neither of the cousins lost. After leaving Uber China, Liu Zhen joined ByteDance as China chief where she helped Zhang Yiming, another softly spoken and low-profile tech founder, turn his company into China’s most valuable start-up.

Jean Liu played a similar role for Didi. In her first year at the company as chief operating officer, she was instrumental in securing investment of Rmb7bn ($1.1bn) from Tencent, SoftBank, Alibaba and Apple.

As part of that deal making, she hosted Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, in Beijing. She argued that the two were a good fit, because Didi’s holding company, Xiaoju Kuaizhi, literally translates as “little orange”.

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