Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder and former chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has re-emerged from wherever he’s been since late October 2020, when he ceased public appearances amid a government crackdown on tech firms.
Per CNN, Ma was present in a video released by Tianmu News, a subsidiary of the official state media apparatus of Zhenjiang province, where Alibaba is based in Hangzhou. Ma appeared via video link to address attendees at an event thrown by his philanthropic foundation’s Rural Teacher Initiative; Tianmu wrote it was filmed on Wednesday local time. He also briefly appeared in a second video visiting a school near Hangzhou, though the Wall Street Journal reported it wasn’t clear when that was filmed.
In November 2020, Chinese regulators brought down the hammer on Alibaba Group fintech affiliate Ant Group, forcing it to halt an initial public offering that was expected to raise $37 billion and set a world record in share sales. It immediately wiped some $68 billion off of Alibaba’s market value. The Shanghai Stock Exchange (which is run via a nonprofit controlled by the Chinese government) told CNN in a statement at the time the IPO was postponed due to “major issues” which meant Ant Group did not “meet the listing conditions or disclosure requirements,” and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterized it as a matter of “self-regulation.” The company later received a “rectification order” from the People’s Bank of China. Alibaba is now facing an antitrust investigation even as it tries to appease regulators.
The month before the IPO cancellation, Ma criticized regulators as having a “pawnshop mentality” and called for lowered restrictions on borrowing, according to the Associated Press, running directly contrary to the Chinese government’s efforts to rein in debt. His subsequent disappearance from public view was widely interpreted as the CEO trying to lay low and ditch some of the heat he had acquired, with ample additional speculation he may have been detained. Interpretations of the Chinese government’s apparent crackdown on Ma ranged from the politically motivated smackdown of a billionaire challenging the Communist Party of China’s monopoly on power to a not-unexpected development in a years-long push by Chinese financial and competition watchdogs to put a focus on sprawling tech giants, as well as concern about the financial risks posed by Ant’s massive IPO.
According to the Journal, Ma didn’t come off as though he was recording a hostage video, and sources told the paper he had chosen to lay low of his own volition:
Mr. Ma appeared relaxed and said he was unable to meet the teachers in person this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. He said his commitments to education won’t change and added that he hoped to see them in the future.
Another video embedded in the same Chinese media report showed Mr. Ma on what it said was a recent visit to a primary school in Tonglu County, near Hangzhou, where Ant and its affiliate Alibaba are based. It didn’t specify when Mr. Ma, who was shown wearing a black cap and padded winter jacket, visited the school.
…. Mr. Ma’s recent appearance could help put to rest some of the unverified rumors about why he has been out of the public eye for months, said Jeffrey Towson, a former professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management… “It was a necessary response to the question of ‘Where’s Jack Ma?’” said Prof. Towson. “Ma has such a high profile, his mere absence creates a lot of crazy ideas.”
Additionally, the paper reported that employees at Alibaba and Alipay celebrated Ma’s reappearance on internal boards.
According to the Journal, the People’s Bank of China signaled it isn’t letting up on Ma or his companies by releasing draft rules that say non-banking payment companies with a large share of the payments market, either alone or in concert with a competitor, “could be deemed as having market dominance and could be broken up or face additional regulatory scrutiny.” Alipay, an Ant Group subsidiary, processed about $17 trillion in digital payments, or a bit over half of the market, in the first half of 2020.