Foreign media outlets began noticing over the weekend that Alibaba tycoon Jack Ma, formerly China’s richest man, has not made any public statements about Chinese regulators dismantling his vast corporate empire.
In fact, they noticed the ebullient Ma has not been seen in public since he dared to criticize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October.
Ma gave a speech in Shanghai on October 24 in which he criticized the Chinese government for stifling innovation in the financial sector with heavy-handed regulations. This triggered an avalanche of regulatory reprisals that began with Chinese officials blocking the planned stock market debut of Ma’s Ant Group financial services corporation, potentially the biggest IPO in history. Last week, Beijing effectively ordered the Ant Group to break up, terrifying other high-rolling Chinese CEOs and wiping out billions of dollars in market value.
The outspoken and often flamboyant Ma was curiously silent while the Chinese Communist Party took a regulatory baseball bat to his kneecaps. Over the New Year’s weekend, international media outlets like Yahoo Finance began remarking that Ma virtually disappeared after that Shanghai speech in October:
Speculation has swirled around Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s whereabouts after reports surfaced that the high-profile businessman has not made a public appearance in more than two months.
The Alibaba founder also failed to appear as scheduled in the final episode of his own talent show, Africa’s Business Heroes, which gives budding African entrepreneurs the chance to compete for a slice of US $1.5 million. Ma was supposed to be part of the judging, but was replaced by an Alibaba executive in the November final, UK’s Telegraph reported. His picture was also taken off the website.
An Alibaba spokesperson said Ma was unable to take part on the judging panel “due to a schedule conflict”, according to Financial Times.
The Financial Times quoted a contestant from Africa’s Business Heroes who said she was “star-struck” at the opportunity to pitch her business proposal to Ma early in the competition but somewhat nonplussed to find him abruptly replaced by an executive from his Alibaba company named Lucy Peng.
“There was something going on in China with Jack Ma or something,” the contestant explained.
The Financial Times noted the broadcast of the Africa’s Business Heroes finale was inexplicably delayed until the spring, and the contest published a promotional video in November that did not mention Ma at all.
Ma, who was once prolific on social media, went dark on Twitter soon after congratulating the contestants in August and gushing that he couldn’t “wait to meet them.”
“Ma, who has over 612K followers on Twitter, last posted on the micro-blogging platform on October 10. In his tweet, he spoke of his partnership with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — Prince William and Kate — and their association with the Earthshot Prize that fetes climate change warriors,” the Economic Times of India reported on Monday.
Time noted on Monday that Ma, once a “global business celebrity,” has not been seen in public for at least two months. The article suggested Ma might have been blindsided by the CCP deciding to take him down a few pegs, along with other tech executives who began to believe their own lies about Chinese “free enterprise” being totally free of Communist political control:
Perhaps Ma’s charitable refocus led him to miss the hardening tenor of government policy. Just a month before his Shanghai speech, the CCP publicized new guidelines on how private enterprises are to help the Chinese state now that “risks and challenges have increased significantly” from the expanded private economy. Of course, this runs counter to the repeated and pained efforts by Chinese-owned tech firms such as Huawei, Tencent, TikTok and Alibaba to portray themselves as independent of government control in the face of mounting U.S. pressure. Persistent reports suggesting that Ant Financial might be forced to pass a large chunk of shares to the state could likewise torpedo its global expansion goals.
“The government is reminding companies that, at the end of the day, we’re the ones who make the regulations, we’re the ones who issue the licenses,” says Mark Natkin, founder of Beijing-based IT research firm Marbridge Consulting. “And if you forget, then you may find an entire area of your business doesn’t get licensed, or your IPO gets halted, or whatever we need to do just to make sure you know who’s the parent and who’s the child.”
Business Insider observed that Ma lost about $12 billion of his $60 billion net worth after making that provocative speech in Shanghai, and is now only the fourth–richest man in China.