SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma made his first public appearance since October on Wednesday when he spoke to a group of teachers by video, easing concern about his unusual absence from the limelight and sending shares in the e-commerce giant surging.
Speculation over Ma's whereabouts has swirled in the wake of news this month that he was replaced in the final episode of a reality TV show he had been a judge on, and amid a regulatory clampdown by Beijing on his sprawling business empire.
The billionaire, who commands a cult-like reverence in China, had not appeared in public since Oct. 24, when he blasted China's regulatory system in a speech at a Shanghai forum. That set him on a collision course with officials and led to the suspension of a blockbuster $37 billion IPO for Alibaba's financial affiliate Ant Group.
Until then Ma often appeared in public, speaking at conferences and other events, though less frequently than in 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Alibaba and his charitable foundation both confirmed Ma, a former English teacher, participated in an online ceremony for rural teachers organised by the foundation on Wednesday. They declined to provide further comment.
In the 50-second video, Ma, wearing a navy pullover, spoke from a room with grey walls, a large painting and floral arrangements. It was not clear where the room was.
Alibaba's Hong Kong-listed shares jumped to finish 8.5% higher on the news, which was first reported by Tianmu News, a media outlet backed by the government of Zhejiang, the province where Alibaba's headquarters are based.
The video also contained footage, dated Jan. 10, of Ma visiting with colleagues a school in Tonglu county, part of Hangzhou city, the capital of Zhejiang.
"Jack Ma's reappearance has given investors peace of mind after a lot of rumours, allowing them to pile into the stock which had been a laggard in the market," said Steven Leung, sales director at brokerage UOB Kay Hian in Hong Kong.
The stock has erased losses suffered after Alibaba became the target of an antitrust investigation launched last month by Chinese authorities, but remains some 11% below levels prior to the cancellation of the Ant IPO.
The topic "Jack Ma makes his first public appearance" and his video address to the teachers soon began trending on China's Twitter-like Weibo, triggering heavy discussion.
Although Ma has stepped down from corporate positions and earnings calls, he retains significant influence over Alibaba and Ant and promotes them globally at business and political events. He also continues to mentor management talent in the "Alibaba Partnership", a 35-member group of company managers.
The company plans to raise at least $5 billion through the sale of a U.S. dollar-denominated bond this month.
(Reporting by Brenda Goh and Luoyan Liu in Shanghai, Kane Wu, Donny Kwok and Sumeet Chatterjee in Hong Kong, Yingzhi Yang, Cheng Leng and Zhang Yan in Beijing and the Shanghai Newsroom; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Edwina Gibbs)