China’s best-known businessman, Jack Ma, has not appeared in public for two months. His break from public view has fueled questions on social media about his current whereabouts.
The former English teacher founded the e-commerce business Alibaba in 1999 when China had few internet users. Ma launched online payments service Alipay, part of the Ant Group, five years later, before such businesses would be permitted in China. Both companies grew to become the biggest in their industries.
Other Chinese businessmen like Tencent founder Ma Huateng are known for avoiding reporters and public appearances. But Jack Ma is different, often appearing on television and staying active on social media. He is known for showing up in public wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses to perform rock songs at Alibaba’s yearly employee meeting.
Ma often says that his oversized head and facial features make him look like the movie character “E.T.” In 2017, he acted as an unofficial business representative when he met with President Donald Trump and promised to create jobs in the United States.
In a speech on October 24, Ma said China’s state-regulated financial system was outdated and needed to be reformed. Chinese media reported him saying, “The race tomorrow will be a race of innovation, not regulatory capabilities.”
The speech came just before the public offering of stocks for the Ant Group. The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping personally made the decision to suspend the public offering. It would have been 2020’s biggest stock offering, raising some $37 billion. In late December, Chinese media reported regulators had started an antitrust investigation into Alibaba and that Ant Group was also told to restructure its operations.
Alibaba Group shares traded in Hong Kong have fallen 19 percent since October. Ma’s net worth, which earlier reached $60 billion, fell by more than $10 billion. Since then, Ma has not been seen in public and has avoided comments on social media.
Last week, The Financial Times reported that Ma was replaced as a judge in the final program in November of a television game show called Africa’s Business Heroes.
An Alibaba spokeswoman told Reuters Monday that Ma had to cancel the TV appearance because of a planning conflict, without providing further information. Neither Alibaba nor Ant Group answered questions about why Ma has not appeared in public.
Ma’s break from appearances has led to questions about what might happen to China’s best-known businessman and billionaire.
“The Jack Ma Era is ended,” wrote one internet writer who goes by the name Yueyue Talks Technology. “It’s too late to say goodbye.”
Some see the Chinese government’s latest moves as a warning from the ruling Communist Party that Ma cannot publicly criticize state regulators. But others say President Xi’s government was already uneasy about Alibaba’s dominance in e-commerce. As for Ant, regulators worried it might add to financial risks and threaten China’s economic growth.
Shaun Rein is a founder of China Market Research Group in Shanghai. He noted that people who know Ma said the billionaire is not in legal trouble. “They spanked him. He’s learned (a) lesson, and that’s why he’s been quiet for the past two months.” Rein added, “Some of his friends told me they can’t believe how stupid he was.”
Ma and his companies are not the only ones targeted by regulators. The ruling Communist Party has increased anti-monopoly enforcement, especially in online industries. Tencent - which operates the WeChat messaging service - and JD.com were also warned by regulators last month not to try to keep new competitors out of their markets.
Foreign investors were uneasy with the moves, but Chinese businesspeople are “quite happy” with the action, said Rein.
He said, “A lot of people saw Alibaba and Tencent as monopolies and stifling competition.”
I'm Anna Matteo.
Hai Do adapted this story for Learning English with additional reporting from Reuters and The Associated Press. Bryan Lynn was the editor.
Words in This Story
feature - n. a part of the face such as eyes, nose or mouth
regulate - v. to bring something under control
innovation - n. the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods
era - n. a period of time
dominance - n. the state of being more important, successful or powerful than almost all others
spank - v. to hit someone in the buttocks with your hand as a punishment
monopoly - n. complete control of goods or service in a market
stifling - adj. making it difficult to do something