Beijing — The co-founder and former chairman of Chinese tech giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, has been conspicuously absent from public view for more than two months. Speculation is mounting over his whereabouts, but reports suggest Ma is likely just lying low amid a Chinese regulatory clampdown on his sprawling business empire.
China’s most famous entrepreneur hasn’t been seen publicly since he delivered a speech in late October at a forum in Shanghai, in which he blasted national financial regulators as too conservative and urged them to be more innovative.
He also likened global banking regulations to an “old people’s club.”
Ma leveled the criticism about a week before a highly anticipated IPO of Alibaba’s financial affiliate, Ant Group. Days later, Ma and Ant Group executives were summoned and interviewed by Chinese regulators. The $37 billion IPO, which was set to be the largest public share offering ever, in the world, was pulled the next day.
Chinese regulators have criticized Ant Group for edging rivals out of the market, accusing it of harming consumer rights. Alibaba, meanwhile, has been investigated in China for alleged monopolistic behavior.
Both the Ant Group and its parent company Alibaba have made it clear that they’re listening to Beijing.
Ant released a statement last week saying it appreciated the “guidance and help” from financial regulators, and said it considered resolving the issues “an opportunity” to strengthen the foundation of the business and grow — with full compliance. Alibaba also pledged to actively cooperate with the antitrust probe.
Ma has kept out of the public view amid the controversies and has reportedly been asked not to leave the country.
The Chinese billionaire mysteriously failed to show up most recently for the final episode of a talent show he created, “Africa’s Business Heroes.”
Alibaba later blamed his non-appearance on a “schedule conflict,” but just weeks before the finale, Ma said in a tweet that he couldn’t wait to meet the contestants.
Asked about Ma’s whereabouts, an Alibaba spokesperson told CBS News this week that, “no further information can be shared for now.”
Ma’s accounts on Twitter and the equivalent Chinese platform, Weibo, have been devoid of updates since mid-October, fueling speculation over his whereabouts.
Chinese citizens have voiced confusion, as well as criticism against him on Weibo. A hashtag translating to “Ma Yun ran away,” using his Chinese name, trended briefly on Wednesday, prompting a flurry of questions along the lines of, “what’s going on” and “is this true.”
Some worried aloud whether they should withdraw their money from Alipay, a payment app with more than 1 billion users owned by Ant Group.
“I think he’s been told to lay low,” Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based tech consultancy BDA China, told the Reuters news agency. “This is a pretty unique situation, more linked to the sheer scale of Ant and the sensitivities over financial regulation.”
“They spanked him. He’s learned his lesson, and that’s why he’s been quiet for the past two months,” the founder of the China Market Research Group, Shaun Rein, told The Associated Press. “Some of his friends told me they can’t believe how stupid he was.”
Some believe China’s ruling Communist Party wanted to set an example by chastizing Ma — a warning that even a wildly successful entrepreneur can’t publicly defy the government’s regulators.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Beijing could be seeking to shrink Ma’s empire, and potentially take a larger stake in his businesses.
China’s regulators have been trying to get the Ant Group to share consumer credit data with the government, something Ma has long resisted.
Other tech targets
Alibaba isn’t the regulators’ only tech industry target of late.
Five other tech giants, including Tencent and online retailer JD.com, were also warned by regulators last month not to try to keep new competitors out of their markets.
“The party has once again reminded all private entrepreneurs that no matter how rich and successful you are, it can pull the rug out from under your feet at any time,” wrote Bill Bishop on his China-focused newsletter Sinocism.
The Chinese government has gone after a few prominent private business groups in recent years, including travel conglomerate HNA, real estate group Dalian Wanda, and Anbang Insurance, all of which were forced to divest businesses and scale back operations.
Nor is Ma the first Chinese tycoon to personally face a government crackdown.
Ren Zhiqiang, a property tycoon, disappeared in March after he called President Xi a “clown” for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. In September he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption.
In 2018, former chairman and chief executive of Anbang Insurance, Wu Xiaohui, was sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges of fraud and embezzlement.
But Andrew Batson, director of China research for the Gavekal investment research group, said Ma being thrown in prison and Alibaba being dismantled was an unlikely, worst-case scenario.
Alibaba shares jumped by as much as 5% on Tuesday following numerous reports that Ma was not missing, but just lying low. The previous day, after more than two months without any sign or word from Ma, the shares slid 2.15%.
Shares of Alibaba have trailed the rest of the U.S. market recent, rising 10% in the past year, far less than other tech giants, which have rocketed higher during the pandemic.