Business was brisk at the HHB Music House on a recent Thursday night. The live music venue, located just a short taxi ride from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd’s headquarters, was crowded, with virtually all of the dozen or so tables and booths occupied by Jack Ma fans ordering Alibaba-themed cocktails with their Alibaba mobile app in the dark and listening to cover songs by the house band. Many were probably hoping to catch a glimpse of its most famous customer, who hasn’t been seen or heard since November.
Ma, who used to come at least once a month to the bar that was opened by Alibaba executives in early 2019, hasn’t been around since late last year, said one worker, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity. HHB, which stands for “Happy Honey Badger”, an animal known for its ferocious fighting abilities that Ma modelled himself after, is a shrine of sorts to the man who put China Inc on the map. In the lobby were a few copies of This Is Ma Yun, a biography written by his personal assistant, and baseball caps emblazoned with a bow-tied feral-looking badger for sale.
Inside, to the right of the stage, is an ode to happier times – a lighted sign with the words “Jack’s Show” hung on the wall, along with the Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga-inspired costumes he wore when he performed at annual company galas. A guitar and a stand-up microphone seemed ready for Ma if he were to pop in for a quick croon.
But Ma watchers shouldn’t hold their breath. He hasn’t been seen in public since the US$35bil (RM141.31bil) initial public offering of Alibaba-affiliate Ant Group Co, potentially the biggest ever, was called off by authorities in November after he made a speech in late October lashing out at Chinese financial regulators. As of early December, Ma was advised by the government to stay in the country, a person familiar with the matter has said, and late last month regulators opened an anti-monopoly investigation into his business empire. Ma also skipped a recent taping of Africa’s Business Heroes, the Shark Tank-like TV show he created.
All that is fuelling the rumour mill over Ma’s whereabouts, though open speculation has been quashed in China after Beijing ordered domestic media to restrict reporting on the antitrust probe, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
An Alibaba spokesperson declined to comment on his location.
The fact that the normally loquacious billionaire hasn’t appeared in public in months is an issue for investors, who deem it an overhang for the languishing stock, said Hao Hong, Chief Strategist at brokerage Bocom International in Hong Kong. Ma’s personal wealth has shrunk by as much as US$11.7bil (RM47.23bil) after Alibaba shares dropped more than 20% since the IPO suspension.
“I think he is laying low, as what is to be gained from making another headline?” Hong said.
During a day trip to Hangzhou, a hub for some of the nation’s most innovative private firms about an hour from Shanghai by high-speed rail, Bloomberg interviewed several local residents and visited Alibaba’s headquarters. The prevailing opinion among those willing to talk was that Ma isn’t in personal jeopardy, and that Beijing probably couldn’t afford breaking up the Alibaba empire and putting thousands of small businesses and suppliers at risk.
“We somewhat depend on Ma’s Alibaba for business,” said one taxi driver who declined to be identified. “Whenever I don’t get enough passengers, I drive to Alibaba’s headquarters and there’s always huge demand especially in the afternoons and at night time.”
Attempts to get insiders to talk on the record were as difficult as getting access to locations closely linked to Ma. One former Alibaba employee who still has business ties with the company cut short a discussion, while a current staffer agreed to chat off the record before later demurring, saying it wasn’t “convenient” to talk to foreign media due to the company’s recent strict internal risk controls. The entrance to Alibaba’s campus was tightly guarded, and guards confronted Bloomberg reporters standing outside the property. A sign at the gate of the visitor center showed a few courses were scheduled at its Taobao University, which trains e-commerce merchants. A company spokesman declined a request for a meeting or tour, citing the blackout period ahead of the release of its third-quarter earnings.
Xiong Gao, a 30-year-old who operates a store on Alibaba’s flagship business-to-consumer platform Tmall, was one of the few people willing to speak.
“Teacher Ma is everywhere,” said Xiong, who had just walked out of the sprawling campus after a meeting during a business trip from Guangzhou. “When we open Alipay or Taobao apps, you’ll see all these masterpieces and achievements of Teacher Ma. He has influenced so many people.”
His colleague, surnamed Lin, questioned the heightened interest in Ma’s whereabouts and defended the executive’s business acumen in the face of monopoly probes.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a monopoly issue here. They are just doing whatever business that’s profitable – I mean, who doesn’t like making money?” said Lin. “Deep down it’s the habit of users, and Jack Ma didn’t force people into buying stuff on his Taobao.”
Ma was also nowhere to be seen at any other locations synonymous with him. The Taiji Mansion – a cultural center offering tai chi lessons which he co-founded with actor Jet Li in 2013 in Hangzhou’s Xixi Wetland scenic area – turned down a request for entry even as people went in and out. A guard said urgent business meetings were taking place, which were later confirmed by a few employees who went out for a cigarette break.
Ma’s old apartment, where he and 17 other people co-founded Alibaba, hadn’t been in use for a while, according to a female neighbour next door. The unit, in a complex translated as “Lakefront Garden” located in close proximity to a small river, was the birthplace for apps like Taobao and Alipay and was often used as a incubator for key projects, according to local media. A security camera overlooked the front door, which was decorated with Chinese scrolls, including one with the saying, “Luck has arrived at your doorstep and from now on things will go smoothly.” – Bloomberg
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