What Happened to China’s Richest Man?
What Winston Churchill once said about Russia also applies to China: The country is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Two important cases illustrate the black-box opaqueness of the People’s Republic of China, reminding us just how little we know about what’s happening in the country whose governing citadel in Beijing is called, literally, the Forbidden City.
The first case is the disappearance of one of the country’s richest ($58 billion at its peak, now much less) man, Jack Ma, the 56-year-old founder of the Alibaba Group, a conglomerate of finance and e-commerce companies. Once a high-profile figure on the world stage, active in both business and philanthropy, Ma hasn’t been seen since October 24.
So what’s happened to him? It seems that Ma got crosswise with his country’s financial regulators over a new lending venture, and then he compounded his problems by airing his grievances at a financial forum in Shanghai. His actual words, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, might seem mild to a Western ear: “We shouldn’t use the way to manage a train station to regulate an airport. We cannot regulate the future with yesterday’s means.”
Yet evidently, Chinese authorities heard those words and took umbrage. As the Journal reported, “Regulators regarded the speech as a direct attack against them.” And so the bureaucrats ordered the cancellation of the initial public offering of stock in Ma’s new company—a decision that cost the mogul billions. Indeed, the Journal added, “Chinese leader Xi Jinping personally interven[ed] to scuttle the market listing.” Moreover, the newspaper continued, “Beijing is now looking to shrink Mr. Ma’s technology and financial empire and potentially take a larger stake in his businesses.”
So where is Ma, himself, physically, right now? Nobody seems to know, but on January 5, Bloomberg News reported that he “has been advised not to leave the country.” So we can assume that he’s under some sort of house arrest, or perhaps we should say, mansion arrest.
Bloomberg News added, “These investigations and their outcome will have significant ramifications, not only for Jack Ma, but also for the entire Chinese technology and financial industry.” Indeed, it could be that Ma has gotten caught up in official concern over exotic financial mechanisms, such as cryptocurrencies, in which his companies have been dabbling. These “cryptos,” as they are called, pose an obvious risk of fraud, as well as a less obvious, but more profound, risk of undermining the central bank of China.
In the meantime, since he suddenly has time on his hands, Ma might be keeping up with the news in China, such as the January 5 report that Lai Xiaomin, the former chairman of an asset management company, having been convicted of “bribery, corruption and bigamy,” has been sentenced to death. In other words, in China, executions for “capitalist roaders” are still a thing.
Then, on January 7, the Financial Times reported that Chinese authorities have begun to censor reports inside China about the status of Ma and his companies. The FT suggests that this cover-up might be because the government is sensitive to international scrutiny on its handling of Ma. Yet it could also be the case that the state has decided to make Ma a non-person—to cancel him. No wonder Alibaba’s stock price has plummeted.
So we can step back and see that China, boasting a $13.6 trillion economy, mostly thanks to capitalism—its economy having grown 6,000 percent in the four decades since it opened up to free enterprise—still retains plenty of deeply communist characteristics. As the Ma case seems to prove, in any showdown between capitalist tycoon and communist apparatchik, the communist will win, because the Chinese Communist Party has the guns.
And the price of communist control, even with a capitalist economy, is fear, even terror. As Ma’s case proves, even the richest Chinese are vulnerable to harsh measures, undertaken under mysterious circumstances, and lacking any sort of due process. As The Financial Times observed on the 12th, the Ma incident “could become a defining moment for the future of private business in Mr Xi’s China.” If so, then the definition of private business in China is that if a businessperson gets crosswise with a bureaucrat, that could pose a life-changing risk–and that’s not a good look, either for personal freedom or for a healthy business climate. Stay tuned for flight of talent and capital out of China.
(And yes, Ma could possibly reemerge any time; that’s the thing about black boxes—what’s inside is an unknown unknown. All we do know is that Chinese officialdom has gotten its message across: Ma will either have to toe the line, or leave the country if he can; there’s no room for dissent in today’s China.)
Meanwhile, the mass of the unlucky and the persecuted in China—including Christians, the newly subjugated people of Hong Kong, followers of Falun Gong, and Uyghur Muslims, together numbering a hundred million souls or more—suffer greatly. And that leaves the remaining population of China, some 1.2 billion, merely fearful of a midnight visit from the police, as well as all the other restrictions that come from China’s mostly totalitarian system.
We can even add that Xi Jinping and the other maximum leaders of China pay a price as well. That is, they live in fear of one another, knowing that they can be purged, imprisoned, and perhaps even killed in the wake of a politburo power play.
This was the scary lot of Russian leaders in the Soviet Union, and the result, history shows, was a regime that grew brittle with personal paranoia and institutional paralysis. Yes, the Chinese have a vastly stronger economy than the Russians ever had, but if the Chinese terrorize themselves, they could lose their wealth—having already, of course, lost their freedom.
In the meantime, there’s also plenty of reason to believe that China has been terrorizing the rest of the world through reckless handling of viruses—and maybe nastier actions than that.
Where Did Covid Come From?
So now we come to the second “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”—and that’s the origin of Covid-19, which President Trump has been mostly calling, since March, the “China Virus.”
There’s no doubt that the virus came from China; the main question is whether or not it was from the wild, or from a laboratory, specifically, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. As this author noted in April, leading Republicans, including Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley, were even then pushing for a full investigation of the virus’s origins. Not surprisingly, the Chinese have stonewalled. As Dr. Anthony Fauci said on January 7, looking back at the beginning of the virus crisis, “Some things were known by the Chinese and they weren’t very transparent about it.”
This deliberate blockade led David Relman, a Stanford University microbiologist, to write an opinion piece for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences expressing his strong suspicious that while the virus might have originated in the wild, it was quite possibly “stored knowingly or unknowingly, propagated and perhaps manipulated genetically to understand its biological properties, and then released accidentally.” In other words, the virus came from a Chinese lab, where it had quite possibly been refined and rendered more dangerous.
Then, on January 2, came a report in the Daily Mail (U.K.), quoting Matthew Pottinger, President Trump’s deputy national security adviser, as saying, “There is a growing body of evidence that the lab is likely the most credible source of the virus.” Pottinger added, “Even establishment figures in Beijing have openly dismissed the wet market story”—that is, the notion the virus came from some random bat or beast.
Two days later, in a lengthy piece in New York magazine, author Nicholson Baker assessed the evidence concerning the virus, exploring how it might have come to be so contagious and deadly. Setting the stage, he observed, “It has been a full year, 80 million people have been infected, and, surprisingly, no public investigation has taken place. We still know very little about the origins of this disease.”
Baker sees no evidence that Covid was designed to be a Chinese bioweapon, as has been alleged by some, including Li-Meng Yan, a Chinese virologist now living in exile.
Yet as Baker notes, there’s perhaps a fine line between a virus that’s being “researched” and a virus that’s being weaponized. As he explains, “gain of function” research is explicitly designed to make the virus more potent; the Obama White House described such gain-of-function efforts as “experiments that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility.” In other words, to make the virus spreadier and deadlier.
Yet why would anyone want do this nasty work? The ostensible answer is that scientists need to better understand the virus, and yet the potential for mayhem is obvious, opening the door to deliberately lethal uses. As author Baker puts it, “We need to stop hunting for new exotic diseases in the wild, shipping them back to laboratories, and hot-wiring their genomes to prove how dangerous to human life they might become.”
We should note that bioweapons are banned by international law, and yet we should also note that the PRC doesn’t seem to be worried about international norms. Thus the grim possibility that new killer bioweapons are upon us.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that China has been doing everything possible to stall inquiry into its virus activities. It’s been jailing Covid whistleblowers in Wuhan—accusing them of “picking fights and provoking trouble”—and clamping down on virus researchers.
WHO to the Rescue? Don’t Hope Too Much!
The international body officially tasked with health is the United Nation’s World Health Organization (WHO). Okay, you remember WHO. One sharp critic, Dr. Dena Grayson, recalled, in a January 5 tweet, some of its past follies:
One year ago today, @WHO was informed of a “pneumonia of unknown cause” in #Wuhan, #China.
“No evidence of significant human-to-human transmission.”
“WHO does not recommend any specific measures for travelers.”
Indeed, over the summer, WHO seemed notably uncurious about the origins of Covid, and overly eager to blame everyone other than China. This Sino-favoritism provoked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to snap that its chief, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had been “bought” by the Chinese.
Now, in January, WHO is poised to investigate the virus—maybe. Having spent months negotiating permission from China to study the virus in and around Wuhan, WHO was just told that its investigators, after all, will not be allowed into China to investigate. Maybe the Chinese government will change its mind again, and maybe it won’t. And yet given WHO’s recent record, perhaps its thwarted investigation isn’t so much of a loss.
However, somebody needs to investigate the virus. And who knows, if we start looking for the virus’s origins in China, maybe we’ll also discover the whereabouts of Jack Ma.
Yes, maybe we’ll find some answers, but probably not. Because for now, the dictators in Beijing seem to have both the bug and the billionaire locked down tight.
Still, the Chinese communist bosses, wielding their immense power in the Forbidden City, might not be resting so easily. That is, every now and then, they might pause and look over at their comrades—even as the comrades might be staring right back. Non-totalitarians can only imagine what sort of Darkness at Noon fate these totalitarians might have in mind for each other.
In the meantime, we have their virus to worry about.