Rumours swirl over whereabouts of China’s Jack Ma

Mainstream Chinese media have not carried stories of Ma’s disappearance from public view. Nor have Ant or Alibaba issued press statements or regulatory filings on the matter. — AFP

LOS ANGELES: Several Western media outlets have reported the disappearance of Jack Ma, China’s most prominent businessman, and co-founder of e-commerce and entertainment giant Alibaba. Some reports claim Ma hasn’t been seen in public for some two months.

Although he is no longer a senior executive at Alibaba, Ma remains the controlling shareholder of Ant Group, a fintech spinoff from Alibaba that was expected to launch the biggest IPO in history back in November.

Ma, Ant and Alibaba have all been in the crosshairs of mainland Chinese authorities since just before the scheduled IPO, when Ma appeared to criticise finance industry regulators and China’s state-owned banks. Following intervention, the IPO was halted just two days before the new shares were due to start trading in Hong Kong.

Speculation as to Ma’s whereabouts was recently triggered by a Jan 1 report by the Financial Times that said Ma had disappeared as the face of African reality show Africa’s Business Heroes, in which he served on the judging panel. In previous iterations of the show, contestants pitched business ideas directly to Ma and competed for financial prizes provided by the charitable Jack Ma Foundation.

Ma was replaced in the show’s November recording by Alibaba executive Lucy Peng. Its broadcast date is now moot.

While the show was recorded around the time of Ma’s run-in with financial regulators, the Financial Times also said that Ma had not been seen in public since then. In mid-December, Bloomberg reported that Ma had been advised not to travel abroad.

Mainstream Chinese media have not carried stories of Ma’s disappearance from public view. Nor have Ant or Alibaba issued press statements or regulatory filings on the matter. Variety has sought precise answers from Alibaba and Ant. Alibaba replied only to a point about the November TV show.

“Regarding the Africa’s Business Heroes competition, Mr. Ma had to miss the finale due to a schedule conflict,” a spokesman said by email.

China has a track record of forcibly detaining not only dissidents and human rights lawyers, but also troublesome business executives. Guo Guangchang, whose Fosun International was a backer of Cirque du Soleil and Studio 8, disappeared briefly in 2015. Xiao Jianhua, head of the troubled Tomorrow Group, was kidnapped by mainland authorities while staying at a hotel in Hong Kong in 2017. Earlier this year, billionaire real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was hauled in for criticising China’s response to the coronavirus. In September, he was jailed for 18 years.

In mid-2018, China’s biggest female movie star Fan Bingbing disappeared from public view after being detained by authorities. She re-emerged two months later confessing to tax evasion activity.

Pressure on Alibaba has mounted on many fronts since Ma’s candid comments. In late November, the State Administration for Market Regulation warned that it was concerned by the pricing and data handling practices employed by Chinese tech giants. The same regulator followed that up by announcing fines for Alibaba (and Tencent’s e-book and TV production offshoot China Literature) for their conduct of corporate acquisitions. On Dec 23, the SAMR announced a formal anti-trust probe of Alibaba.

Over the New Year period, authorities have suggested that Ant Group be shorn of its growth businesses, reducing it to a payments business like Visa or American Express, or broken up entirely.

Whether Ma has been detained, or is simply doing his best to avoid the limelight, his low profile reflects a growing interference by Beijing around the activities of private sector companies.

“[Ma’s] public rebuke is a warning that Beijing has lost patience with the outsize power of its technology moguls, increasingly perceived as a threat to the political and financial stability President Xi Jinping prizes most,” Bloomberg wrote in December when reporting the “crisis” in Ma’s empire. –

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