In late March, Daniel Zhang unveiled what was called the “most significant” overhaul in the 24-year history of Alibaba, one of China’s original technology conglomerates, splitting the company into six units that would help them seek out investors from the public.
Now, Mr. Zhang, the tech giant’s chairman and chief executive, is out of the top job and will step down from Alibaba’s board of directors, and two of the company’s co-founders have moved up into the leadership positions.
Alibaba announced on Tuesday that Mr. Zhang, 51, will relinquish his top job in September. Instead, he will serve only as chief executive of Alibaba’s cloud computing division, a position he assumed in March when he unveiled the restructuring. Alibaba announced plans to spin off its cloud division in May, in preparation for a public listing.
Joseph Tsai, 59, an Alibaba veteran with roots to the company’s founding, will move up from executive vice chairman to chairman. Another Alibaba co-founder, Eddie Yongming Wu, will succeed Mr. Zhang as chief executive.
“This is like the oldest of the old guard,” said Duncan Clark, the chairman of the investment advisory firm BDA China in Beijing. “The trusted team, the old guard, is back in control.”
Alibaba is reshuffling its leadership at a critical time. The company was the highest-profile target of a crackdown by Beijing on the power of China’s biggest tech companies. Its stock price has tumbled from its 2020 peak.
Alibaba’s founder, the billionaire Jack Ma, was driven out of the public eye in 2020 after criticizing Chinese regulators for stifling innovation at Ant Group, Alibaba’s financial technology sister company. After his remarks, Chinese officials suspended plans for Ant Group to sell stock in an initial public offering. In 2021 Chinese antitrust regulators fined Alibaba $2.8 billion for preventing merchants from selling their goods on other shopping platforms.
Mr. Ma, a popular figure in China and long the face of the company, made a publicized return to China this year just as Alibaba announced its restructuring, which was seen in part as a response to tighter regulations by Beijing.
On Saturday, Mr. Ma appeared at a math competition sponsored by a research division of Alibaba, according to a post on the institute’s blog. Though he no longer holds a formal role at Alibaba, Mr. Ma remains one of its largest shareholders, with 4.5 percent of the company as of 2021, according to corporate filings.
In a letter to employees Tuesday, Mr. Zhang said it was time for him to dedicate his “full attention” to the spinoff plans. He also cited the need for a clear separation between his roles at Alibaba and the cloud division.
Mr. Tsai, the new chairman, has a relationship to Mr. Ma that some former employees have described as inseparable. The two met in 1999, when Alibaba was still a free online portal, and Mr. Tsai joined the company that year. He helped Mr. Ma secure early investments from Goldman Sachs and SoftBank, and stewarded the company’s initial public offering in New York in 2014, then the largest in history.
Alibaba’s executive vice chairman since 2013, Mr. Tsai is the primary owner of the Brooklyn Nets, the National Basketball Association team.
The elevation of Mr. Wu, a longtime executive of Alibaba’s e-commerce division, signaled to analysts that Alibaba would continued to make online shopping a core pillar of its business.
Mr. Wu, who is in his late 40s, helped lead Alibaba’s transformation from an e-commerce giant to a mobile juggernaut, turning the digital payment app Alipay into one of the default forms of payment across China. He will continue to serve as the chairman of Taobao and Tmall, Alibaba’s two domestic e-commerce businesses.
Mr. Zhang told investors that Alibaba would become less centralized and more efficient by spinning off its components. But Alibaba has also recently announced the creation of a high-level committee to make decisions about distributing money to the new business groups, which some analysts took as a sign that the company was still keeping power in the hands of a few key people.
Mr. Zhang succeeded Mr. Ma as chairman of Alibaba in 2019. Then a rising star in the company, he was the architect behind Singles Day, Alibaba’s most successful shopping event. Known for his attention to detail and problem-solving abilities, Mr. Zhang was widely regarded as a complement to Mr. Ma, who was known inside the company for his visionary prowess.
Alibaba is synonymous with online shopping in China. But the company has since expanded into an array of businesses from digital payments to delivery services to entertainment. In recent years, it has expanded its e-commerce division and has served the A.I. boom with its cloud computing unit.
Jacob Cooke, chief executive of WPIC, an e-commerce consultancy, said the return of Mr. Tsai, who has extensive investments around the world, was a logical choice for Alibaba given its recent international focus.
Last year, Alibaba poured $1.6 billion into its e-commerce business in Southeast Asia, according to corporate records in Singapore provided by VentureCap Insights, a research firm. And last week, it announced plans to start a local version of its e-commerce division, Tmall, in Europe.