A Chinese ecommerce divorce saga turns ugly

Business & Technology

In February, Lǐ Guóqìng 李国庆, the former CEO and co-founder of Dangdang.com, one of China’s most popular ecommerce sites, announced his departure from the company. Li claimed, via a statement, that he had voluntarily given up his throne to his wife, Yú Yú 俞渝, who co-founded the platform with him in 1999 and allegedly plotted his ousting by diminishing his influence inside the enterprise.

“I believe that after I leave Dangdang and end the husband-and-wife business structure, Yu Yu will lead the company to future success and continue providing high-quality service to our 300 million customers,” Li wrote (in Chinese), indicating a peaceful handover of power, and possibly alluding to an amicable split with his wife.

However, it turns out that Li’s breakup with Dangdang was only the beginning of a contentious, drawn-out divorce drama, one that reached new heights this week.

The latest controversy comes in the form of an argument on WeChat, China’s all-encompassing messaging app. On October 23, Yu left a lengthy comment on Li’s WeChat Moments (similar to a news feed) in which she listed a series of accusations.

She accused her 55-year-old husband of stealing a staggering 130 million yuan ($18 million) from their joint bank account, which included some of her parents’ savings. She claimed to have endured years of domestic violence. She said Li has been lying about his sexual orientation and has had sexual relationships with several gay men during their marriage. “Li Guoqing, I will scrape and break your face,” Yu said.

Li swiftly hit back with denials and threats. He wrote on Weibo that he filed a divorce petition in July, but Yu didn’t agree to call it off. Li also denied Yu’s allegations of him transferring properties, vowing that he would fight relentlessly for his stake in Dangdang. Regarding questions about his sexuality, Li suggested that he would take legal action to shut down his wife’s defamation and slander about his private life. On top of all that, Li noted that he had “solid evidence” about some secrets that Yu had been hiding during their marriage. “I don’t want to expose your hypocrisy because I think there’s still love between us, but don’t take my compromises as weakness,” Li wrote.

On October 24, Li made another post on Weibo, revealing that the billionaire couple’s disagreement on how to split their stock shares of Dangdang was the main cause of their hostility toward each other. “Dangdang was created and managed by me,” Li said, adding that he would walk out of his marriage only if Yu agreed to split the company equally between them. In a follow-up statement published on Friday, Li clarified that he never cheated on his wife with other men. And while he admitted that he had an STD, Yu said that he was infected not during sexual contact, but from a public bathhouse.

The exchange, full of salacious and attention-grabbing claims, made a bunch of headlines and intensified the public’s curiosity. But those who have been following the company have known for a while that a grudge between the two founders has been brewing. Earlier this month, when speaking about his departure from Dangdang during an on-camera interview, Li lost his temper and threw a glass of water on the floor. “I will never forgive her because she’s my wife,” Li told the interviewer.

Dangdang was founded in 1999 as an online bookseller, but it did not take long for the platform to expand into a massive ecommerce company in the same vein as Amazon. In 2005, Dangdang reached 440 million yuan ($62.2 million) in annual sales, only second to Alibaba’s Taobao in terms of performance that year. In 2010, the company made an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange estimated at approximately $1 billion. In recent years, Dangdang has been gradually losing its prominence among Chinese customers, but the entire fortune of the Li Guoqing-Yu Yu couple still adds up to a whopping 7 billion yuan ($990.7 million), by some estimates.

In the current drama, most people seem to be opting to side with Yu, given Li’s history of making offensive comments about Yu and sexist remarks in general. In the interview mentioned above, Li complained that Yu never cooked or washed socks for him. In November last year, when education mogul Yú Mǐnhóng 俞敏洪, the founder of Chinese tutoring giant New Oriental Group, publicly blamed Chinese women for the country’s declining moral standards, Li somehow felt the urge to voice his support for Yu on Weibo, writing that he admired Yu’s courage to “state the truth.” One month later, when JD.com CEO Richard Liu (刘强东 Liú Qiángdōng) was embroiled in a rape scandal, Li came to Liu’s defense, arguing that Liu’s behavior caused no harm to his wife or the company because “it was just a consensual sexual relationship outside his marriage.”

Li’s sexism has been so obvious and troubling that it even provoked a commentary (in Chinese) from China Women’s News, the publication of the All-China Women’s Federation. “Li’s remarks have exposed his twisted, regressive views on gender,” the newspaper wrote. “His defense of extramarital sex further shows his problems with morality and his ignorance of marital laws. This is utterly baffling.”