Chinese Billionaire Jack Ma Reappears, Three Months After Criticizing His Government

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 23: Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba listens as Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at a U.S.-China business roundtable, comprised of U.S. and Chinese CEOs on September 23, 2015, in Seattle, Washington. The Paulson Institute, in partnership with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, …
Elaine Thompson-Pool/Getty Images

Billionaire Jack Ma, once hailed as China’s richest man, reappeared in public Wednesday for the first time since he criticized the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at an event in Shanghai on October 24.

During the three months in which the normally ebullient Ma was mysteriously silent, Chinese regulators scuttled the historic initial public offering for his gigantic Ant Group finance corporation, broke the corporation into pieces with anti-trust allegations, and erased about a quarter of his $60 billion net worth.

Bloomberg News reported stock in Ma’s e-commerce company Alibaba soared after Ma reappeared, but noted there are still “plenty of unanswered questions about the billionaire’s fate”:

Ma spoke briefly on Wednesday during an annual event he hosts to recognize rural teachers. In one video of the event circulated online, China’s most famous entrepreneur can be seen touring a primary school in his hometown of Hangzhou. Ma, who had stayed out of public view since regulators suspended the initial public offering of his fintech company Ant Group Co., told the teachers he’ll spend more time on philanthropy. He didn’t mention his run-ins with Beijing.

Ant confirmed the authenticity of the video, first posted on an online blog, but declined to comment further. Shares of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant co-founded by Ma that owns about a third of Ant, jumped 8.5% in Hong Kong and were up almost the same level in pre-market U.S. trade.

Ma’s absence became most conspicuous in early January when he was scrubbed completely from promotional materials for a Chinese television show he once hosted. Another Alibaba executive was substituted for Ma in the season finale of the show. The company said only that he was unable to appear due to a “scheduling conflict,” which would not explain why his name and photos were completely erased from the show, and the airing of its finale was delayed for months without explanation.

Ma vanished after complaining in Shanghai that ham-fisted Chinese Communist regulators did not understand the new world of Internet business. When he reappeared on Wednesday at the teacher’s conference, he spouted CCP political narratives about convincing talented young people to leave the overcrowded cities and move to rural China. 

“Ma’s disappearance from public view over the past two months has sparked speculation about his whereabouts among many Western media outlets,” China’s state-run Global Times condescendingly observed, without giving those Westerners much reason to stop speculating.

Even the Chinese state paper implicitly acknowledged Ma’s disappearance after his “controversial remarks at the Bund Summit in Shanghai in late October” was difficult to explain, so it did not even attempt to offer an explanation.

Bloomberg News noted that Ma’s actual whereabouts “remain unclear” — he spoke to the teachers’ group via livestream — but since Chinese government websites made much of his appearance, they clearly wanted to signal that he is still alive and capable of coherent speech. Analysts speculated the CCP wanted to alleviate “worst-case investor concerns” and signal that Ma’s relationship with his government has “stabilized,” as Brock Silvers of Kaiyuan Capital in Hong Kong put it.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) noted that Chinese media also ran a video of Ma visiting a primary school near Alibaba and Ant Group headquarters in Hangzhou, although it did not specify when the video was recorded.

The WSJ quoted “people familiar with the matter” who said Ma has been traveling between Hangzhou, Beijing, and Sanya, the resort town where the teachers’ ceremony is held. One of these sources said he “chose to lay low” after arousing the ire of the CCP in Shanghai. He has reportedly been in contact with friends, family, and executives at his companies during his absence from the public stage.

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