Mystery shrouds the whereabouts of Chinese billionaire Jack Ma after reports emerged that he has not made a public appearance in more than two months.
The founder of tech giant Alibaba 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 $1.5 million.
Ma was supposed to be part of the team of judges, but was replaced by an Alibaba executive in the November final, UK’s Telegraph reported.
The Financial Times reported that an Alibaba spokesperson said Ma was unable to take part on the judging panel “due to a schedule conflict”.
The mystery of his whereabouts comes at a time when the Chinese authorities have been tightening the grip on the once unbridled empire of tech tycoon.
Ma, the ebullient and unconventional billionaire and the totem of China’s entrepreneurial brilliance, now finds himself up against a Communist leadership seemingly intent on hacking back his empire and issuing a lesson that no one is bigger than the party.
Ma, the most recognisable face in Asian business with a fortune estimated at around $58 billion, has already faced the ignominy of having the world’s biggest-ever IPO spiked by Chinese regulators days before its launch.
The November share sale was set to see his wealth bulge to more than $70 billion in a record-breaking listing of the group’s Ant Group financial arm in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
But Chinese regulators abruptly pulled the deal, over what initially appeared to be concerns about the company’s reach into the finances of hundreds of millions of Chinese people.
As global demand for the dual Hong Kong-Shanghai listing pushed the IPO toward record valuations — potentially handing Ma and Ant Group even more funding, legitimacy and clout — Chinese regulators acted.
The outspoken and charismatic Ma — a former teacher — had previously lashed out at China’s outdated financial system, calling state-owned banks “pawn shops” in an October speech that led to him being summoned for regulatory talks shortly before Ant’s IPO was suspended.
It was a brutal public rebuke to Ma, who was then called in for dressing down by regulators and has since evaporated from the spotlight he normally so ably commands.
Now China’s poster boy for enterprise finds himself again caught in the glare of the Communist-run state, with the announcement of an anti-monopoly probe into Alibaba, the tech giant he founded, and the summoning of Ant Group by regulators.
It is another public relations catastrophe for Ma, a Communist Party member, whose rags-to-riches backstory has come to embody a self-confident generation of Chinese entrepreneurs ready to shake up the world.
Charismatic, diminutive and fast-talking, Ma was cash-strapped and working as an English teacher when someone showed him the internet on a 1990s trip to the United States — and he was hooked.
He toyed with several internet-related projects, before convincing a group of friends to give him $60,000 to start a new business in 1999 in China, then still emerging as an economic giant.
Changing shopping habits
Alibaba was the result, an e-commerce empire founded from his bedroom in Hangzhou and which started an online shopping revolution and grew into a fintech titan.
The company changed the shopping habits of hundreds of millions of Chinese people, and catapulted Ma into the global limelight.
“The first time I used the internet, I touched on the keyboard and I find ‘well, this is something I believe, it is something that is going to change the world and change China’,” Ma once told CNN.
In 2014, Alibaba listed in New York in a world-record $25 billion offering.
Ant Group, in which Ma is the largest shareholder, is now the world-largest digital payments platform, claiming 731 million monthly users on the Alipay app.
But there are fears it reaches too deeply into the pockets of ordinary Chinese with its micro-loans, investment and insurance products.
Crossed the line?
Ma long enjoyed an image as the benevolent and unconventional billionaire.
Sometimes referred to in China as “Father Ma”, he is praised for his self-deprecation — he recounts being rejected by Harvard “10 times” — and a knack for lighting up company events with song-and-dance appearances as Lady Gaga, Snow White and Michael Jackson.
As his fortune grew, Ma rebranded as a philanthropist — in 2019 retiring from the business to focus on giving.
But even his charitable work betrays an idiosyncratic touch.
After footage of a little boy in a village in central China who looked like Ma went viral, the businessman promised to pay for him to go through university.
But that reputation may be in the balance with the regulatory slap-down playing into a growing sense shared on China’s Twitter-like Weibo that he has leaned into hubris by criticising fintech regulators.
He has faced his share of travails over the years in a country where getting rich risks catching the attention of the powerful.
Eyebrows were raised when the state-run People’s Daily revealed that he is a member of the Communist Party — something Ma has never fully commented on.
He had previously indicated that he preferred to keep the state at arm’s length, telling the World Economic Forum in 2007: “My philosophy is to be in love with the government, but never marry them.”
But perhaps the biggest challenges remain ahead, as the size and scale of his business mean that relationship may need to be renegotiated.
Ma’s last tweet was on October 10, 2020.