For months, billionaire Alibaba founder Jack Ma has been missing. He hasn’t been seen since late October…until Wednesday, that is, when he made his first public appearance in nearly three months. He spoke via video at a philanthropic event called Rural Teacher Initiative. Ma gave a speech to a group of teachers from schools in rural areas of China. Ma addressed 100 village teachers who were selected to receive accolades from the foundation. In the video, Ma appears relaxed, and commented that the coronavirus pandemic prevented him from meeting the teachers in person this year. This calmed the chatter that something suspicious led to Ma’s disappearance. Upon news that Ma was alive and well, shares of Alibaba closed 8.5% higher Wednesday.
This was Ma’s first public appearance since October 24, 2020. On that day, he gave a speech in Shanghai at a financial forum that angered the Chinese government. In that speech, Ma declared the rules to be bad for fostering innovation. He also called the regulators that enforce the system “an old man’s club.” The government then started looking into Ma’s empire. Ma and two Ant Group executives were called into a closed-door meeting by China’s financial regulators. Ant Group’s highly anticipated IPO was expected to raise more than $34 billion. However, Chinese President Xi Jinping made the decision to cancel Ant Group’s IPO in both Hong Kong and Shanghai. Ant Group’s IPO was expected to be the world’s largest. Chinese regulators also launched a probe into Alibaba, accusing the e-commerce site of being anticompetitive. Ma has been laying low ever since that October 24th speech that set off this chain of events.
According to people close to Ma, he has remained in mainland China and has been to Hangzhou, Beijing, and Sanya since late October. He’s also been in contact with his close friends and top executives at Alibaba and Ant. Reportedly it was his decision to lay low.
Wednesday’s event was organized by Ma’s foundation. He stepped down from Alibaba in September 2019 to focus on a return to education and a focus on philanthropy. He set up his foundation in late 2014 to provide help to kids in rural areas, women’s development, young entrepreneurs, and environmental causes. Employees at Ma’s companies cheered his reemergence on Wednesday. It was the sign they needed that Ma was simply laying low and had not, as feared, been detained by Chinese authorities.
Authorities in Beijing are still trying to shut down at least part of Ma’s empire. Under Chinese law, the country could confiscate some or all of Alibaba and Ant if they determine Ma has run afoul of their ever-changing rules and laws. Regulators are still very much focused on reigning in Ant. The company grew too fast for the government’s liking and it now wants it to re-tool its business model to fit within strict Chinese banking regulations.
Ma has become the target of the Chinese government because he advocates for an open, market-driven economy. Many people believe that the cancelation of the Ant Group IPO is a retaliatory move for his speech against China trying to curb the launch and growth of startups.
On the same day Ma resurfaced, the People’s Bank of China released proposed new rules for nonbank payment companies that could threaten to shut down or greatly hinder Ant Group’s Alipay platform. The rules state that a company that dominated the electronics payment market could be forced to be broken up or face regulatory scrutiny. For the fiscal year ending in June 2020, Alipay handled more than $17 trillion in digital payments.