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Billionaire founder of JD.com returns to China after arrest on sexual misconduct allegations

Billionaire founder of JD.com returns to China after arrest on sexual misconduct allegations
JC.com founder Liu Qiangdong, shown in 2015 in Beijing, has returned to China after his weekend arrest over sexual misconduct allegations in Minnesota, (Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

JD.com Inc.’s billionaire founder has returned to China after his weekend arrest on allegations of sexual misconduct in Minnesota, with local police beginning an investigation into the chief executive of one of the Asian country’s largest internet corporations.

Liu Qiangdong, who uses the English name Richard, was brought in at 11:32 p.m. local time on Friday on an accusation of “criminal sexual conduct” and was released just over 16 hours later, according to arrest records. Minneapolis Police Department spokesman John Elder declined to provide any further details about the reasons for the arrest, but said authorities decided not to keep Liu in custody and haven’t imposed travel restrictions on him while conducting their investigation.

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JD.com is China’s largest ecommerce company after Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., backed by investors including social media titan Tencent Holdings Ltd. and American names Walmart Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. Liu, 45, has led the $45-billion business since its founding and controls the business through special voting rights.

“We are very much in the infancy of this investigation,” Elder said. Authorities may decide not to charge Liu at all, he added. “There are no travel restrictions on him at the moment, and he’s not charged with a crime at this time.”

The billionaire has since flown back to China, his company said. JD earlier said on its official Weibo social media account that U.S. police found no misconduct in their probe against Liu. It didn’t elaborate or explain how that assertion squared with the police’s own statement of an ongoing investigation. In the Weibo post, the company had said he would continue a scheduled business trip.

Police haven’t outlined specific accusations against Liu, said attorney Joseph Friedberg, whom JD confirmed as representing the billionaire. His team was awaiting details from the authorities before deciding on next steps, and Friedberg wouldn’t elaborate.

“No one has told him or us what the accusations are,” he said in a phone interview. “If he were to be charged — and I don’t think there is any possibility of that — he would certainly come back to face charges.”

Liu is registered as a student at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in its Doctor of Business Administration program, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, citing a spokesman. Participants were in town from Aug. 26 through Saturday as part of their residency, the newspaper reported. The university didn’t respond to calls and emails from Bloomberg News outside normal business hours.

Liu became one of China’s best-known self-made billionaires by turning a chain of electronics goods stores into an online powerhouse selling everything from mobile gadgets to fresh seafood. It’s Walmart’s partner in the country, and its largest shareholder is WeChat operator and games giant Tencent. The CEO has amassed a fortune of about $7.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

His wife, Zhang Zetian, is famous in China in her own right with 1.5 million followers on Weibo. She was dubbed “Sister Milk Tea” after a photo of her holding the drink went viral on social media in the country.

Liu’s JD has started pushing into physical stores and the billionaire speaks openly about his longer-term goal of expanding internationally, though the company’s incursions overseas have so far mostly been limited to Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. Liu has his eyes on the affluent consumers of Europe and the U.S. as he makes substantial investments in the infrastructure needed to supply millions of customers around the world.

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