Chinese billionaire Jack Ma is not missing, and is just laying low, sources have said, after he vanished following a speech about economic reform in the country.
Ma founded Alibaba, Asia’s version of Amazon, with sources inside the company telling Fox Business that he is currently in hiding but is ‘not missing or detained’.
One of China’s most successful and outspoken tycoons, Ma criticised the country’s ‘pawnshop’ financial regulators and state-owned banks in an incendiary speech in Shanghai in October.
He called for reform of a system that ‘stifled business innovation’ and likened global banking regulations to an ‘old people’s club’.
‘Today’s financial system is the legacy of the Industrial Age,’ Ma said Octtober 24 in Shanghai, Yahoo Finance reported. ‘We must set up a new one for the next generation and young people. We must reform the current system.’
The speech angered the Chinese government, which viewed Ma’s criticisms as an attack on the authority of the Communist Party, and led to its extraordinary clampdown on Ma’s business activities.
Jack Ma, one of China’s most successful entrepreneurs, criticised the country’s financial regulators and its state-owned banks in an incendiary speech in Shanghai in late October. Ma is thought to have fallen foul of President Xi Jinping personally. Sources inside the company he founded – Alibaba – say he is just laying low, rather than being ‘missing or detained’
In November, officials in Beijing ‘dressed down’ Ma and suspended the blockbuster $37billion initial public offering of his Ant Group on the direct order of President Xi, the Wall Street Journal reports.
They then advised Ma to remain in China before launching an anti-monopoly investigation into Ma’s Alibaba Group Holding on Christmas Eve, according to Bloomberg. Beijing also ordered Ma’s financial tech company Ant Group to scale back its operations.
Ma then mysteriously disappeared from his Dragons’ Den-style TV show Africa’s Business Heroes just before the November final, while his photo was scrubbed from the show’s judging panel webpage.
A spokesperson for Alibaba told the Financial Times that Ma could no longer be part of the judging panel ‘due to a schedule conflict’.
His calls for reform of a system which he claimed was stifling innovation are thought to have angered government leaders who viewed the speech as an attack on the Communist Party
But weeks before the final, Ma tweeted that he ‘couldn’t wait’ to meet the contestants. There has been no activity since then on the father-of-three’s Twitter account, one that had regularly seen several tweets a day.
Beijing has a history of ruthless action against its internal critics and in March a property tycoon disappeared after he called President Xi a ‘clown’ for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Friends of Ren Zhiqiang said they could not contact him and six months later he was sentenced to 18 years in prison after he ‘voluntarily and truthfully confessed’ to various crimes of corruption.
Xian Jianhua, a billionaire financier, was snatched from a Hong Kong hotel in 2017 and taken to the mainland.
He is said to remain under house arrest more than three years later, with no official word of his location.
The anti-monopoly investigation caused Alibaba’s shares to drop by a quarter since their peak shortly after the October speech, wiping more than $10billion from Ma’s paper fortune.
It knocked Ma into third place on the list of China’s richest people, behind Pinduoduo chief executive Colin Huang and Tencent Holdings’ Pony Ma Huateng.
Ma now has an estimated current net worth of $63.1billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
In the wake of the speech, Ma was ‘dressed down’ by officials in Beijing and the blockbuster $37billion initial public offering (IPO) of his company Ant Group was suspended, reportedly by President Xi personally, according to the Wall Street Journal (pictured, singing a song during an event to mark the 20th anniversary of Alibaba in Hangzhou)
Xi Jinping speaks during a conference with European leaders from Beijing on Wednesday
On Wednesday, shares of Nasdaq-listed Pinduoduo rose 7.77 per cent in New York, lifting its market capitalisation to nearly $220billion.
It marked the second day in a row that the five-year-old start-up passed the $200billion mark in value.
Huang’s wealth in China is now behind only Zhong Shanshan, the chairman of bottled water giant Nongfu Spring that recently completed a record-breaking $87billion Hong Kong IPO in September.
The fate of the country’s largest e-commerce, delivery and social media platforms has been in limbo since Beijing drafted a document to crackdown on the ‘platform economy’ in early November.
Despite being one of China’s most successful businessmen, Mr Ma has increasingly clashed with the regime over his preferences for more of an open and market-driven economy. There is no suggestion so far that he has come to physical harm.
Until recently he had been a leading light of China’s unique approach to generating wealth by unleashing market forces within a tightly-controlled communist framework.
Some see Ma’s travails as a warning from the ruling Communist Party that even a wildly successful entrepreneur can’t publicly defy regulators.
But finance experts said President Xi Jinping’s government already was uneasy about Alibaba’s dominance in retailing.
As for Ant, regulators worried it might add to financial risks seen by the ruling party as one of the biggest threats to China’s economic growth.
Shaun Rein, a business consultant in Shanghai who said he meets Alibaba managers and people who know Ma, said none of them reports the billionaire is in legal trouble.
‘They spanked him. He’s learned his lesson, and that’s why he’s been quiet for the past two months,’ said Rein, founder of China Market Research Group. ‘Some of his friends told me they can’t believe how stupid he was.’
Alibaba founder Jack Ma speaks during the Alibaba 20th Anniversary Party at Hangzhou Olympic Center Stadium on September 10, 2019
Ma, who is married to Cathy Zhang (pictured), 55, has completely disappeared from public view – a sudden change all the more remarkable given his previously huge public profile
The English-teacher-turned-business-magnate commanded near-rock star status and even played an unconquerable kung fu master in a star-studded 2017 film.
And even while tensions between the US and China were deepening, Mr Ma was able to extend an olive branch by donating 2,000 ventilators to New York with his right-hand man Joe Tsai, prompting a ‘thank you’ from Donald Trump.
But the stock market launch of Ma’s payments firm Ant was scuppered by regulators in what many saw as a retaliatory move for his explosive speech in Shanghai in October.
Since then, regulators have met with executives from Ant and ordered it to improve its corporate governance, its compliance with regulation and its habit of using its size to push competitors out of the market.
In the process Mr Ma, who is married to Cathy Zhang, 55, has completely disappeared from public view – a sudden change all the more remarkable given his previously huge public profile.
Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman in 2019 but is part of the Alibaba Partnership, a 36-member group with the right to nominate a majority of its board of directors. He is one of the biggest shareholders.
The entrepreneur has committed millions of dollars towards fighting the coronavirus pandemic, saying he would give $14.4 million to help fund vaccine development for coronavirus in Wuhan.