Alibaba’s Jack Ma disappeared for months, but mystery remains over the Chinese billionaire’s whereabouts

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It’s hard to imagine Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, vanishing from the public eye for nearly three months.

But it happened to one of his fiercest competitors, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who briefly resurfaced recently after a controversial speech in late October.

The 56-year-old businessman, ranked by Forbes as China’s richest person, co-founded the country’s largest e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba in 1999.

He made his first public appearance last week via a video meeting after intense speculation over his whereabouts.

However, it’s still unclear where he was speaking from and where he was residing during his absence.

Mr Ma is a symbol of success and aspiration in China. The former English teacher turned tech super star has been adored by many, with entrepreneurs and netizens calling him “Daddy Ma”.

He sang with celebrities, starred in blockbuster movies and was painted by top Chinese artists.

But a blunt speech, an ongoing investigation and controversial remarks about work ethics have put Mr Ma’s standing at stake.

‘Crossed the line’

Jack Ma and Xi Jinping in a graphic
Speculation mounts around Jack Ma’s whereabouts during his absence.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

In late October, during a speech at a financial forum in Shanghai, Mr Ma blasted the country’s financial watchdogs, saying that “China’s financial sector basically doesn’t have a system” and Chinese banks operated with a “pawnshop” mentality.

Days later, Chinese regulators reportedly summoned Mr Ma and executives from Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Group to a meeting and then abruptly shelved its initial public offering (IPO) on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges.

Ant Group is China’s biggest payments provider, and its IPO was described by some as the world’s largest.

Later in December, Alibaba Group confirmed in a statement that the State Administration for Market Regulation was investigating “the company pursuant to the anti-monopoly law”.

The company employs more than 100,000 people, has expanded into financial services, cloud computing and artificial intelligence, and has been valued at $US460 billion ($671 billion).

Richard McGregor, a senior fellow from Lowy Institute and author of Xi Jinping: The Backlash, told the ABC Jack Ma’s case was significant both commercially and politically.

A man in grey suit smiling.
Mr McGregor says Jack Ma’s case is ‘a big deal’.(Supplied: Lowy Institute)

“Jack Ma had a lot of enemies for a long time within the various sectors of the economy,” he said.

“The state banks obviously have complained about him a lot because … Ant Financial is potentially taking business from them.

Mr Ma isn’t the first high-profile businessman to have gone missing.

Last year, real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang reportedly disappeared after he called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “clown” for his handling of the coronavirus crisis in China.

He was later sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption.

‘Lying low’

A man dresses in a navy pullover in a video call.
Jack Ma meets with teachers in rural areas around China via video conference.(Supplied)

Although Mr Ma has stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman to focus more on education and philanthropic pursuits, such as his Jack Ma Foundation, he remains its biggest individual shareholder and holds considerable influence.

Last week, Mr Ma met with 100 rural teachers via a video meeting as part of Jack Ma Foundation’s rural teacher project. His reappearance led to a 6 per cent rise in Alibaba’s Hong Kong-listed shares.

In the 50-second video, Mr Ma was dressed in a navy pullover and spoke rather gently, in contrast to his usual flamboyant style and occasionally blistering speeches.

Dr Pichamon Yeophantong, a political scientist and China expert at UNSW Canberra, told the ABC that even leading entrepreneurs in China could face real constraints with respect to their freedom to manoeuvre and ability to take risks, when it comes to informing and critiquing government policy.

“The fact that he’d focused on his company’s commitment to rural revitalisation projects — using language that is in line with [President Xi Jinping’s] policy priorities — is suggestive of the pressure and scrutiny he is now under”.

A woman in a red top, standing in front of a white wall
Dr Yeophantong says she’s surprised by the fact that Ma had felt ‘secure’ enough to make the Shanghai speech.(Supplied: UNSW Canberra)

Speculation continues to swirl around Mr Ma’s whereabouts, but Mr McGregor believes he is “lying low” as opposed to have “disappeared”.

“Since Alibaba was listed overseas, if Jack Ma had been detained by the authorities, I don’t think it would have been secret, because they would have had to declare that,” he said.

“He’s obviously on a warning, and as a result of that, he basically was lying low, I think is the best way to put it.

“If you’re in trouble in China, you don’t run public campaigns against the Government to get out of trouble.”

The ABC has approached Jack Ma through the Jack Ma Foundation for comment.

‘Unregulated’ territory

China’s digital economy has been booming since the 1990s and the coronavirus pandemic saw many retailers rush to grow their online presence.

Sign at Alibaba headquarters in Hangzhou
Some commentators suggest regulators are making an example of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.(Reuters: Lang Lang)

But that financial space wasn’t properly regulated for a long time, and the governance model is now being corrected, according to John Lee, a senior analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin.

“[Internet platforms] were able to build their business models and scale rapidly in what was basically an unregulated space throughout the 1990s through early 2000s,” he said.

“Since Xi Jinping came to power, the Chinese state has been rolling out a comprehensive institutional and regulatory framework to govern cyberspace, with the moves against Internet-enabled consumer finance providers like Ant being only one example of the state asserting control.

“The fact that Ant is not being broken up and that Ma has reappeared reinforces the message that the state will not kill internet platform businesses and tycoons, but rather co-opt them to its own agenda.”

Ant Group and Alibaba have been approached for comment.

A man in black suit, standing
Mr Lee says the suspension of Ant Group IPO sends a political message.(Supplied: Mercator Institute for China Studies)

Reuters reports that China is planning to push tech giants including Ant Group to share consumer loan data to prevent excess borrowing and fraud, which would end the Government’s laissez-faire approach to the industry.

Mr Lee said Ant Group and Alibaba would be far from the first tech giant being disciplined by regulators, citing Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo.

In December, a 22-year-old female employee of Pinduoduo collapsed after leaving work at 1:30am.

The company confirmed that a female employee collapsed while walking home from work with a colleague in the early hours of December 29. She later died in hospital, the company said in a statement.

The cause of her death was not disclosed, but it reignited debate on the notorious “966” culture in China’s tech industry, which refers to staff working from 9:00am to 9:00pm, six days a week.

The ABC has approached Pinduoduo for comment.

“Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, there has been growing emphasis on ideological conformity and promotion of ‘socialist values’, which various big internet platform businesses have fallen afoul of,” Mr Lee said.

In a speech to Alibaba staff that was posted to Chinese social media Weibo in 2019, Mr Ma said working 12 hours a day for the company was a “blessing”.

“If you don’t work 996 at a young age, when will you be able to [do it]? Do you think never having to work 996 in your life is an honour to boast about?” he said.

The comments generated backlash online, especially from the younger generation, with some netizens now calling him “evil capitalist” and “bloodsucker”.

Mr Ma’s comments also drew censure from Chinese state media.

‘Flying dangerously close to the sun’

Jack Ma dresses as Michael Jackson as he performs on stage.
Mr Ma is known for his lavish events and personality.(AFP: STR)

So far, China’s financial regulators have given few details about the antitrust investigation against Alibaba.

On Tuesday, China’s central bank Governor Yi Gang said Ant Group’s IPO could resume once it fully complied with the country’s law and had addressed customer complaints.

Dr Yeophantong said Jack Ma’s case spoke volumes about Xi Jinping’s China.

“It suggests how Xi is much less tolerant of his critics compared to his predecessors. Not even high-profile and previously celebrated figures like Ma have ‘political immunity’,” she said.

“But it also reflects the curious attempt by Xi to stoke patriotic entrepreneurship as part of his broader ‘national rejuvenation’ plans.”

Mr McGregor said the Communist Party had been strengthening its role in business, including private business.

“Xi Jinping has been bringing big private companies to heel … making sure they’re working on behalf of the Party, making sure they’re not getting too big for their boots,” he said.

“I think Alibaba will still be a substantial company and Jack Ma will obviously still be a substantial businessperson. But he’s had his wings clipped.

“He was flying dangerously close to the sun, because of his high profile.”

Mr McGregor said after Xi Jinping, Mr Ma was the next “best-known Chinese person” in China, and his status was “both a blessing and a potential curse”.

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